Debunking the Myth That Mental Illness Is a Strong Predictor of Gun Violence

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, November 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

Debunking the Myth That Mental Illness Is a Strong Predictor of Gun Violence


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In a recent online article for The New Yorker, reporter Maria Konnikova asks the question, "Is there a link between mental health and gun violence?"

"It seems intuitive that someone who could do something terrible must be, in some sense, insane," she writes. "But is that actually true? Are gun violence and mental illness really so intertwined?"

After a painstaking look at the research, Konnikova concludes that such a link, "is quite small and far from predictive."

The factors that are actually linked to gun violence are much more complicated, she adds -- and thus much more difficult for politicians and the public to accept, much less take action on.

Debunking two myths

Although her article describes research conducted both in the United States and abroad on the topic, Konnikova focuses on the seminal studies done by Jeffrey Swanson, now a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University:

When Swanson first analyzed [in the 1980s] the ostensible connection between violence and mental illness, looking at more than ten thousand individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year, he found that serious mental illness alone was a risk factor for violence -- from minor incidents, like shoving, to armed assault -- in only four per cent of cases. That is, if you took all of the incidents of violence reported among the people in the survey, mental illness alone could explain only four per cent of the incidents. When Swanson broke the samples down by demographics, he found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs -- and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness. If someone fit all three of those categories, the likelihood of them committing a violent act was high, even if they weren't also mentally ill. If someone fit none, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence.

"That study debunked two myths," Swanson said. "One: people with mental illness are all dangerous. Well, the vast majority are not. And the other myth: that there's no connection at all. There is one. It's quite small, but it's not completely nonexistent."

In 2002, Swanson repeated his study over the course of the year, tracking eight hundred people in four states who were being treated for either psychosis or a major mood disorder (the most severe forms of mental illness). The number who committed a violent act that year, he found, was thirteen per cent. But the likelihood was dependent on whether they were unemployed, poor, living in disadvantaged communities, using drugs or alcohol, and had suffered from "violent victimization" during a part of their lives. …

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