(Bloomberg) -- Republican politicians from Senator Ted Cruz to Texas Governor Greg Abbott have been quick to blame mental illness following a deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and two teachers.
The problem with that thinking is that the evidence doesn’t support it -- even if common sense suggests a mass shooting, especially of children, is not the act of a person who is mentally well.
While reporting from Texas following the May 24 shooting makes clear the Uvalde gunman, Salvador Ramos, was a deeply troubled individual, state officials have said he had no documented mental health issues. Research shows that only a very small percentage of violent behavior is connected to mental illness.
“If we magically cured all these serious mental illnesses tomorrow, which would be wonderful -- imagine the alleviation of suffering -- our violence problem would go down by about 4%,” said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Unversity.
Firearm violence is a greater risk for young males, individuals with a violent childhood and those who abuse drugs and alcohol. While mental illness can contribute to gun violence, the vast majority of those suffering from mental illness will never engage in violent acts, Swanson said.
Attributing school shootings to mental illness, meanwhile, increases the stigma around such conditions, which include depression, schizophrenia and psychosis, according to experts.
National Rifle Association leaders are expected to shift the focus away from gun policies that put deadly weapons in the hands of the public when their national convention kicks off in Houston on Friday. The organization called the Uvalde massacre “the act of a lone, deranged criminal” in a statement.
Around 45,000 people died from gun-related deaths in the US in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half those deaths were suicides, and many of the remainder were murders.
Guns are also now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, surpassing car crashes, drug overdoses and drownings, according to recent CDC data.
Texas is fiercely pro-gun rights, and Abbott last year signed legislation allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license.
Abbott, at a press conference in Uvalde, suggested that access to guns isn’t the issue.
“We haven’t had episodes like this before,” Abbott said. “One thing that has substantially changed is the status of mental health in our communities.”
In truth, shooters in the US have tried to kill in places like schools, malls and bars for decades.
Cruz, who is expected to be at the NRA event, has described the shooting as the actions of a “violent psychopath.” He also said none of the gun-law proposals made by Democrats would have stopped it.
Democrats have been quick to dispute those claims. “Spare me the bull,” Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut said to reporters after urging his colleagues to take action against gun violence.
Other countries have mental health problems too but rarely have mass shootings, President Joe Biden said in a May 24 speech in which he pleaded for gun reform and called for standing up to gun manufacturers.
“They have mental health problems. They have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost,” Biden said. “But these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency they happen in America.”
Many people associate mental illness with violence, likely because of how these conditions are portrayed in the media, including in reporting about shootings like Uvalde.
Mental illness can also be an easy scapegoat for making sense of tragedies like Uvalde, which are devastating and hard to comprehend, said Lynsay Ayer, a senior behavioral scientist at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
“People want to explain it, to say ‘this person wasn’t thinking rationally, wasn’t thinking like you and me, something went wrong in their brain wiring,’” she said. Blaming mental illness is “convenient, but it’s overly simplistic and runs the risk of hurting people who have mental health problems.”
People with mental health disorders are, in fact, more likely to be the victims of violence than a perpetrator, Ayer said.
Using mental illness as an explanation for such events also plays into outdated tropes, like the idea that “something is wrong with” those individuals, said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“I think people confuse having a mental health condition with being troubled, and they are not one and the same,” she said. Mental illness is defined by specific medical guidelines. It’s also widespread, affecting one in five US adults every year.
Gun violence remains poorly understood. One reason: Since 1996, Congress has limited federal funding of research into the subject. While that’s now changing, gaps in understanding remain. Studying mass shootings is also challenging because such events are relatively rare, Ayer said.
(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.)
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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