Ask the typical person what they find most frightening about mental illness, and you’ll probably hear something about violence. People tend to recall images like a frantic homeless man angrily ranting to himself as he stumbles up a city street, or even darker stories of people hearing voices commanding them to kill. It’s a common misconception: A survey conducted in 2006 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found 60 percent of their respondents incorrectly listed “violent behavior” as a symptom of schizophrenia.
Unfortunately, it’s an association often made in the mass media – a recent study published in Health Affairs found the media plays a large role in unfairly portraying the mentally ill as being violent.
Associations between violence and mental health common
For the study, researchers examined 400 stories published in leading media sources from 1994 to 2014. Over half –55 percent – of the stories the researchers analyzed made associations between mental illness and violent acts. That percentage stayed more or less constant throughout the range of the study, with 38 percent of the stories mentioning violence against others and 29 percent making a connection between mental illness and suicide. Additionally, only 14 percent of the stories were about recovery from – or successful treatment for – mental illness.
However, other associations actually increased in number, particularly in stories about mass shootings
In the first 10 years of the study, 9 percent of the stories about mass shootings made a connection between the violent act and mental illness. That percentage increased to 22 percent in the years between 2005 and 2014. Admittedly, sometimes there were legitimate connections between illnesses like schizophrenia and violent acts, such as the 2011 shooting in Tucson, whose perpetrator, Jared Lee Loughner, was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others, and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents,” said lead study author Emma McGinty, Ph.D., from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a press release. “In an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence.”
Another recent study from Duke University researchers found a legitimate connection between the mentally ill and gun violence – mentally ill patients are much more likely to use the gun against themselves. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, most gun deaths in the U.S. are due to suicides, not mass shootings.
Guns, the mentally ill and suicide
In the Duke study, researchers studied nearly 82,000 patients in Florida diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or major depression for over ten years. During that period, 254 of the patients in the study killed themselves – almost four times the average suicide rate in Florida for the same period. Of that number, 50 used a gun as their suicide method. Nearly three-quarters of that group – 72 percent – were able to purchase firearms legally.
“Our federal gun regulations pertaining to mental illness prohibit lots of people from accessing firearms who are not violent, and never will be. At the same time, they fail to identify some people who will be violent or suicidal,” said study lead author and Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D., in a Duke press release. “With these data, we can improve criteria for restrictions that might actually reduce gun violence, but also carefully balance rick and rights.”
An additional study that appeared in the American Journal of Public Health in 2015 found the associations between gun violence and mental health were more due to stereotypes than actual statistics.
Mental illness is common – NAMI reports one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness each year. As frightening as mental illness can sound, it’s also treatable. Sovereign Health’s evidence-based, effective mental health and substance abuse treatment programs help our patients lead healthier lives. Our holistic approach to treatment heals patients in both mind and body. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at firstname.lastname@example.org.