Although the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are rarely ever violent, news stories often rush to link terrible acts on violence, such as mass shootings to mental afflictions. This tendency can be quite misleading and maybe even offensive to actual people who suffer from mental illness. So the question is why does this happen, where does this tendency come from?
Recent studies suggest that only about 4% of interpersonal violence in the U.S. can be attributed to mental illness. Yet up to 40% of news stories about mental illness connect it to violent behavior that is considered a threat to other people’s safety.
One of such studies, published in the June issue of the journal Health Affairs, conducted by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined over 400 news articles about mental illness that were published over two decades, from 1994 to 2014, in popular news outlets.
They found that over this period of time mental illness was linked to suicide in the articles or TV news reports up to 29% of the time. What’s more, stories covering mass shootings that depicted the shooters as mentally ill increased over the study period from 9% of all news stories during the first decade (1994 to 2005) to 22% in the second decade (2005 to 2014). Schizophrenia has been the most common illness mentioned in connection to violence.
The team argued that while people who commit mass shootings are not mentally healthy, they may have anger or emotional issues which by no means equals a diagnosed mental illness. What this tendency also does is perpetuate the stigma of mental illness and make the burden of real victims of mental illness even harder to bear.