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The Danger of Categorizing Perpetrators of Violent Crimes as “Mentally Ill”

There has been a lot of progress made on debunking myths on mental health issues; some of the media ha helped that effort, while some haven’t. PHOTO/ Fabrice Florin - Flickr Creative Commons
There has been a lot of progress made on debunking myths on mental health issues; some of the media ha helped that effort, while some haven’t. PHOTO/ Fabrice Florin – Flickr Creative Commons

By Sandy Mui

Published: April 25th, 2018

It’s only Wednesday, but two devastating tragedies have already dominated the news cycle this week. Firstly, on Sunday, four people were fatally shot at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee. Secondly, on Monday, a driver plowed a van into a busy street in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 14.

So far, authorities have yet to determine a motive for Travis Reinking, the 29-year-old responsible for the Waffle House shooting and Alek Minassian, the driver of the van in Toronto. However, law enforcement was quick to jump on the claim that both killers may have “mental issues.” 

Whenever terrible violent crimes—usually mass killings—occur, there is a tendency for media outlets and police to report on the perpetrators’ mental health history. We saw this happen with Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter; Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland high school shooter; and now, with Reinking and Minassian. President Donald Trump—one of the biggest advocates for mental health reform in the United States — said he planned to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health” following the Parkland shooting.

This comes as a blow for those who suffer from mental illness and only furthers the stigma that mentally ill individuals are violent people. In reality, the majority of people with mental illness are not violent. A book published by American Psychiatric Association Publishing in 2016 listed these statistics as “evidence-based facts” to dispute misperceptions that link mass shootings and mental illness:

Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%.   

The good thing is, as much as I have seen mental health “myths” propagated, I have probably seen just as much material—such as the excerpt from the book above—that defends the mentally ill. While the media has been dangerous in terms of reporting on mass murderers’ mental health issues, it has also been powerful in arguing the little connection that exists between violent crimes and mental health issues—the New York Times, NPR, and Politico are among these publications. By the way, Jack Silverstein, one of my former colleagues, has an excellent Twitter thread that chronicles his thoughts on public shootings, and this tweet summarizes my own stance on the issue:

A major factor in the widespread acceptance of mental health issues is the fact that many high-profile individuals have publicly spoken about their own battles with mental illness. This has been particularly powerful in sports, with NBA players like DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, and Kelly Oubre, Jr. as recent examples. When people who hold such high platforms are giving their voices to a once-stigmatized subject, we have been able to make progress in unwinding the myths associated with mental health.

Let’s not hinder this progress by continuing to link mental illness to violent crimes.

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