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The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance acknowledges the heaviness that many people around the country are feeling in the wake of the recent mass shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and at the Tulsa Medical Center, which, sadly, follow on the heels of shooting incidents in Buffalo, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

In the aftermath of acts of gun violence, questions often arise about whether the assailant had a history of one or more mental health conditions. For example, after two mass shootings in a single weekend in Texas in August 2019, then-President Donald Trump stated, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger.” In 2018, more than 50% of Americans believed that people with schizophrenia and alcohol use disorders posed a danger to others, and 30% believed that people with depression posed such a threat.

In their responses to heightened community concerns over the threat of mass shootings, numerous public officials in recent years have pointed to “mental illness” as a simplified explanation for these terrifying acts of violence. The “deranged shooter” narrative resonates with a persistent – if largely false – belief among majorities of adults in the United States.

DBSA’s mission is to provide hope, help, support, and education to individuals living with mood disorders. In our role as the leading peer-focused advocacy organization for people living with depression and bipolar disorder, we believe it is critical that the public and policymakers stop responding to gun violence and mass shootings with statements that mental health conditions are the underlying cause. The claim is false and discriminatory. Hearing the predictable characterizations of the perpetrators framed as mental health issues is a scapegoating tactic and does a disservice to those we are here to serve. 

Studying the relationship between mental illness and suicide or firearm violence – both self-directed and interpersonal – is challenging because mental illness is often undiagnosed and undetected by the health care system. Furthermore, postmortem diagnoses in the case of suicide or post-event diagnoses in the case of violent crime may be biased.

Like members of other vulnerable populations, persons diagnosed with mental health conditions are statistically more likely to be victims than the perpetrators of violent crime. According to a study cited in the January/February 2021 edition of the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, people with mental health conditions represent between 25% and 58% of those shot and killed by police officers each year.

Studies show that symptoms of mental illness by themselves rarely cause violent behavior, and thus cannot reliably predict it. In fact, according to the Mental Health America Fact Sheet on Gun Deaths, Violence, and Mental Health, 95% to 97% of homicidal gun violence is not carried out by individuals with mental health conditions. To say otherwise is misleading and wrongfully points a finger at tens of millions of people who have experienced or are living with mental health conditions.

Previous violence is the only evidence-based predictor of future violence. Having a history of violence, youth justice involvement, parental justice involvement, and physical interpersonal abuse are the key predictors of future violence.

DBSA believes our policymakers must begin to address the root causes of violence. We endorse the recommendations put forward by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing in its August 2019 report. Included among those recommendations are the following:

  • Fully implement the existing federal background check requirement for firearms purchases.

Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock is the CEO of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. He drives DBSA’s mission of providing hope, help, support, and education to improve the lives of people living with mood disorders.