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Myth-busting the Relationship Between Mental Illness and Violence

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Last week’s on-air shooting in Virginia of a reporter and cameraman re-poses a question that simply won’t let go. What is the connection between mental illness and violence, if any? Columbine, Newtown, Washington Navy Yard, and now Roanoke, Virginia, are all names that force the question to bubble to the surface. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last time we confront it.

Fact vs. fiction

Mental Illness_2.5x likely attacked_v2The proliferation of today’s media makes it too easy to draw conclusions that aren’t necessarily based in the evidence, often blurring the line between fact and fiction, a view supported by research. For example, news stories on mental illness either focus on the condition’s negative aspects or medical treatments, yet they don’t cover the many positive stories of people who have recovered.[i] Additionally, fictional TV characters with mental illness are portrayed as dangerous, with approximately 60 percent involved in violence or crime.[ii] Last week’s on-air shooting during a newscast is both an ironic – and grim – depiction of this tension between reality and non-reality on television.

Further, the data simply do not show that people with mental illness are more violent than those who are not. According to Sandro Galea, the Chairman of epidemiology at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, quoted in a CBS piece on the Washington Navy Yard shooting in 2013, “Individuals with mental illnesses are much more likely to have violence done to them than inflict harm on others.” Indeed, one body of research concludes that people living with severe mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be attacked or raped than the general population.[iii] While mental illness and violence are linked in the minds of many, the fact is that millions of Americans – one in four – face mental health issues each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Still, mental illness is perceived not as a health condition, but rather as a personal weakness or threat. Many people go without help because they are afraid of being labeled or misunderstood.

Public misperception of mental illness leads to stigma

Last week’s shooting serves as a reminder that there is a disconnect between the public perception of the violent actions performed by a few people living with mental illness and the fact that millions of Americans live with mental illness every day. A history of violence is a separate issue than a history of mental illness. Tying the two together continues to promote the stigma of this health condition. The reality is that individuals who are mentally ill are as part of the day-to-day fabric as the general population. They make their communities better places to live. They build, teach, volunteer and entertain. They own businesses, run for public office and raise families. “They” are us. Our individual contributions are immeasurable, our impacts far-reaching. And, no one should be discounted or marginalized because of a treatable illness.

sos-logo-green dot_smallIn response to the ongoing effect of stigma around mental illness, Beacon Health Options launched the Stamp Out Stigma campaign in 2012. The goal of the campaign is to be a vocal proponent with our own employees, clients and members to reduce the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to seek help. To broaden the reach of the Stamp Out Stigma mission, we turned the campaign over to the Association of Behavioral Health and Wellness to share with other managed behavioral health organizations and the public at large. That campaign provides educational tools, online resources and video testimonials from individuals personally affected by mental illness. These tools and the many stories of hope and healing are available to all at www.stampoutstigma.com.

A history of violence is a separate issue than a history of mental illness.

While important debates continue on the policy issues of gun control, security clearance for military bases, and the need to improve access to mental health care and coverage, we must first ensure that people feel that they can access care without shame or fear of being labeled.


[i]Wahl, O. (1995). Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[ii]Mental Health America. American Opinions on Mental Health Issues. Alexandria: NMHA, 1999.

[iii]Hiday, V.A., Swartz, M.S., Swanson, J.W., et al. (1999). Criminal victimization of persons with severe mental illness. Psychiatric Services, 50, 62–68.

5 Comments. Leave new

Thanks, Amy and Jim for drawing attention to this. Hopefully, over the past 7 years since Jim’s op ed there has been some progess in regards to public perception around this issue. Regardless, the reality is there is still quite a long way to go, so again thanks for tackling this issue!


Amy, Your message is spot-on and largely, if not totally, absent from all major cable and network news coverage of the many violent events that capture the public’s short-term attention. We need a more enlightened and full mental health discussion during the media coverage of these violent incidents so that the public understands that mental health conditions do not equate to a propensity for violence any more than ignoring a fever over time. Equating mental health conditions to a propensity for public violence makes as little sense as equating PTSD to veterans– rather than their non-veteran counterparts who are by far more likely to have the condition. Discussing mental health and violence so superficially and inacurately make it more likely that the 1 in 4 Americans who suffer with mental health problems will hide their conditions and delay treatment rather than seeking timely care. These media generalizations perpetuate rather than weaken the powerful stigma foolishly associated with mental health and make treating it more difficult. Again, Amy. Well done!


There is a significant interface in the discussion involving gun control and SMI. In most states, if not all, an individual is legally disqualified from purchasing a firearm if they have had an involuntary commitment. It’s a surprisingly contentious topic. Thoughts?


[…] for preventing the repetition of such horrors. Yet, as we wrote last year, researchers have already debunked the link between mental illness and gun violence. Instead, we found access to guns increases rates of suicide, but not of homicide. However, what […]


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