Mental illness link to mass violence misleading

Candles at makeshift memorial
FILE - In this July 20, 2012, file photo, candles sit illuminated along the sidewalk in front of a makeshift memorial for the victims of a mass shooting at the Century 16 theatre east of the Aurora Mall in Aurora, Colo. The terrorist attacks in Paris are stoking fears of similar scenes in the United States, but survivors argue that sort of carnage has been happening all along in this country. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, FILE)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – When mass shootings happen in public places, people are left asking why. Why would someone go into a school or movie theater or mall and shoot strangers? Investigators, lawmakers, analysts and the media search for somewhere to place the blame and find a way to prevent the tragedies from happening again.

That blame often lands on mental illness.

Reports suggest that in the mass shootings in the United States since 1970, around 60 percent of the perpetrators showed symptoms of depression, delusions, and paranoia, according to an article in the American Journal of Public Health.

“[Society] always wants to ascribe a mental illness to people who do pretty depraved things,” Dr. Stephen Ross, a clinical and forensic psychologist, said.

Linking mental illness as a root cause of mass shootings is oversimplifying it, though, and it can be misleading.

Candida Miller, left, and Brandon Snyder leave flowers at a site of a growing memorial to victims of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. (AP Photo via Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)
People leave flowers at a site of a growing memorial to victims of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., Oct. 6, 2015. (AP Photo via Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

“What we don’t want to say is those with mental illnesses are more likely to commit violent acts. In fact, that’s not the case,” Ross said.

A 2001 study of 34 adolescent mass murderers found most were described as loners and abused drugs or alcohol, around half were bullied and fantasied about violence, but only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history. Only six percent were deemed psychotic when they committed their crime.

“There are some folks who have done mass shootings who have killed people,” Ross said. “They may not be mentally ill, but they’re socially and morally depraved. It’s evil. Evil in its truest form.”

It’s estimated only three to five percent of violent acts are committed by someone with a serious mental illness. A person suffering from a mental illness is also more likely to become a victim of violence than they are to commit a violent act.

“We’re talking about a very small section of people with mental illness who have gone out and been violent to other people,” Ted Coburn, the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness(NAMI) Fort Wayne, said. “If you have a serious mental illness, you’re more likely to hurt yourself than another person.”

FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2013 file photo, a makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn., on the one-year anniversary of the shootings. Newtown is taking its time to decide what a permanent memorial should look like. A commission has been hearing proposals for concepts including murals, groves and memorial parks, while looking for lessons from paths chosen by other tragedy-stricken communities. Public forums are planned for 2015, the next step in a process that is expected to last several more years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
In this Dec. 14, 2013 photo, a makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Every year the number of suicides far outnumber the homicides in the United States. Coburn said there are usually around 15,000 homicides nationwide compared to 35,000 suicides. Some organizations cite as many as 41,000 suicides a year. In Allen County, so far this year, there have been 28 homicides and 36 suicides. Research from NAMI showed 90 percent of people who commit suicide had a mental illness.

“People do get better, but there needs to be help,” Coburn said.

Last year, one in five American adults had some kind of mental health issue. One in 25 lived with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

Getting help and treatment, Coburn said, sometimes is a challenge. He said that while around 80 percent of people with a serious mental illness do find their way to treatment, in some cases, it takes up to a decade to get there.

“I’ll have people come in when they’re 16 and this has been going on for ten years and nothing was done about it,” Dr. Ross concurred.

Lisa Smith, the executive director for Mental Health America Allen County, said there are opportunities for people to get help, but the system is sometimes fragmented.

The funding cuts eliminated a lot of long-term care facilities.“Part of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have enough resources. Look at funding cuts,” Smith said. “If you look at the funding cuts at the federal and state level in the last decade, you can see why we’re not always working smoothly to get people into services and help maintain their services.”

“We’re fortunate in our community to have as many resources as we do, but there’s still not enough funding to serve all the folks who are struggling,” Smith said.


Community-based treatment and counseling does work for many people, but Coburn said that’s not always enough.

“That’s the cheap way to do it. We don’t have a lot of money to do it and these health care centers are trying to work in a certain budget,” he said. “I have met people who needed that longer term care and got better and came back to the community and did wonderful. Sometimes we can get someone in the hospital for one, two, three maybe four days, but that’s not always enough time to make sure medicines are working correctly or to see stability in a person’s mood. We need a long-term care option for some people.”

Those facilities do still exist, but the availability is a lot lower than demand.

“The whole level of ability to care for enough people who are struggling doesn’t equal up. What we’re doing is we’re incarcerating people. They’re in prison and that has become our long-term care for people with mental illness and that’s unfortunate,” Smith said.

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers in Fort Wayne try to prevent that. They can often work out a situation with someone and get that person help instead of taking them to jail. NAMI and other organizations worked to develop that team more than a decade ago.

“Fort Wayne CIT goes to about 1,200 calls a year and a third are suicide-related. CIT officers help calm people down and save their lives and take them to a hospital for evaluation. A very small percentage go to prison,” Coburn said.

While mental illness has a wide range of disorders, conditions and severity, and the treatments are not “one size fits all,” the vast majority of cases are treatable and manageable.

“We need accurate, early diagnosis and then the patients have to be compliant with treatment,” Dr. Ross said. “Parents need to be aware and recognize there could be something going on with their child and get some help.”

Coburn would like to see a better way for people with concerns to get help.

“What are you going to do? Call 911 and say my son likes Nazi themes? The terminology to get someone committed is an imminent threat to themselves or others. There’s just no easy way in our system right now to say that I perceive a threat,” he said.

Another barrier to people seeking help is the stigma surrounding a mental health condition.

“We’re all affected by it and we need to be better at understanding it and accepting it as a normal course of our life,” Smith said.

That leads to a lot of people going undiagnosed.

“There are folks walking about and they’re anxious or depressed and not getting treatment because they’re managing it,” Dr. Ross said.

But, just as not diagnosing and treating a heart condition is unhealthy, so is not diagnosing and treating a mental health condition.

“How do we get treatment that’s affordable, accessible and acceptable? That’s where we need to start. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a violent act or the health and well-being of an individual. We need to make sure people can get access to care,” Smith said.

While working on this story, 15 Finds Out discovered a new task force in Allen County is working to make getting that care easier and more streamlined.

See how the group is trying to change the community conversation when On the Edge continues Thursday at 6 p.m.

Click here to take online screening tests for several different mental illnesses. 

Crisis Lines: 
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 272-TALK (8255)
Mental Health America Crisis Line: Text CSIS to 85511
Trevor Project (LGBTQ youth and young adults): (866) 488-7386

Local Resources: 
STOP Suicide Northeast Indiana: (260) 422-6441
Mental Health America in Allen County: (260) 422-6441

Mental Health and Addiction Services:
Bowen Center: (800) 342-5653
Headwaters Counseling: (260) 744-4326
Park Center: (260) 481-2700
Parkview Behavioral Health: (800) 284-8439
St. Joseph Behavioral Health: (260) 425-3606
Northeastern Center: (800) 790-0118

National Resources: 
American Association of Suicidology: (202) 237-2280
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: (888) 333-AFSP (2377)
Lifeline for Suicide Attempt Survivors and Families
Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide: (732) 410-7900
Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Helpful Websites and Apps: 
Suicide Safety Plan (Mood Tools) – printable version here
My3 Support Network (CALMHSA)
Virtual Home Box (T2)
Now Matters Now (online program)
Beating the Blues (online program)

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