The dangers of linking mental health and violent crime

By Beatrice Duncan

CW: Gun violence, mental health, domestic abuse

On Sunday Night, Stephen Paddock perpetrated the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

The 64 year old fired into the 22,000+ crowd from a window at The Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, leaving 59 people dead and over 500 injured. Across the hotel room and 2 homes, he had a total of 47 guns, 33 of which had been purchased in the last year. Police are still attempting to work out the motive. Paddock had no contacts with foreign or domestic extremist groups, and no history of psychiatric problems.

Here is what powerful people have had to say about Paddock, and previous shooting perpetrators.
Trump called him “a sick man, a demented man” with “lots of problems”.
Paul Ryan said that “one of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness”. He has claimed that mental health reform is the “critical ingredient” to stopping mass shootings and wants to restrict the rights of people with mental illness to bare arms.
After Sandy Hook in 2012, Anne Coulter was infamously reported as saying “Gun’s don’t kill people-the mentally ill do”, while NRA president LaPierre called for a ‘national registry’ of people with mental illness.

As has been already noted, the mystery surrounding Paddock is exactly the opposite-he had no history of mental illness, and his family attested to this. Now obviously not everyone is always aware of someone else’s mental illness, and often people who need help have not gone to get the adequate help they need. There is also a lot of information about Paddock that has yet to surface.
But even so, what Trump and Ryan are doing is assuming that this must be the reason for the massacre-some undisclosed mental illness.

Frankly, I’m sick of this happening so often and it going unchallenged. Many news sources have reported that Paddock was prescribed valium/diazepam 3 months previously. This seems to me to be a pretty irrelevant fact, but one that many people will latch onto. Anxiety isn’t really known to be a mental illness that causes you to buy 47 guns and commit mass murder, and the most common side effects of valium are drowsiness and muscle weakness. It is dangerous and irresponsible to attempt to use this as evidence of mental health issues that will have caused the attack. It seems perfectly clear, at least to me, that there is another link between the perpetrators of massacres, and it isn’t mental illness.

Here are some figures.

According to The American Psychiatric Association, less than 1% of all yearly gun related homicides are perpetrated by someone with a serious mental illness. In fact, they contribute to only 3% of ALL violent crimes. While around 23 people a year are killed by an individual with a psychotic illness in the US, 330 people are struck by lightning.
Now you could argue that this still shows at least some need to consider mental health as the major factor in a mass homicide. However, this breaks down if we look at another factor that many mass shooters have had in common-identifying as male.
Women are 40% more likely than men to develop a serious mental illness. In the US, while 5% of women have been diagnosed, only 3% of men have been. However, in a study of 160 cases of shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, only 6 involved a female.
If the key link between mass shooters was mental health disorders, as Trump and Ryan would like you to believe, wouldn’t that require a much larger percentage of female mass murderers?

Back to Paddock. The Centre for Disability Rights says that when looking at gun control we should “focus on what people actually do, not on what we think they might do because of who they are”. They argue that we should look at records of workplace or domestic violence, and documented threats etc.
According to baristas at a Starbucks in a casino Paddock frequently visited with his girlfriend, he was “notorious for abusing girlfriend in public” and “didn’t let her talk”.
This isn’t the first time that a mass killer has had a history of domestic abuse.
Omar Mateen who committed the attack on a nightclub in Orlando allegedly beat his former wife and his widow.
Robert Dear who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in 2015 allegedly abused multiple wives.
Eseteban Sanitago, who attacked Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport allegedly assaulted and strangled his girlfriend.

To cut to the chase, I’m tired. I’m tired of mental illness being the go-to reason why someone has committed a massacre, just because there seems to be no other motive. I’m tired of politicians using flagrantly ableist language like ‘demented’ to describe killers. I’m tired of mental health only being discussed in America after a tragedy like this. I’m tired of the media reporting massacres in a way that so clearly demonises and stigmatises those who suffer from mental illness.

Don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy to see the US government taking steps towards mental health care reform.
I just really wish it was not in this context.

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