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Mass Shootings and Mental Illness: Correlation Not Causation

It’s the end of a week that began with shock and horror at the tragedy of yet another mass-shooting. In that time we’ve discussed sexism – both against women and men – and gun control. The last part of the media mass-shooting-trifecta is a discussion of mental illness and how that relates to these sorts of events.

Whenever anyone thinks that mass, indiscriminate violence is the answer to a problem, it is not a far leap of the imagination to think that he or she* most likely has “something wrong.” Yet, just because these folks are (or are not) mentally ill does not mean it has anything to do with mass shootings in general.

For example there is a conspiracy theory circulating the internet that it is not mental illness, but “psychotropic drugs” that all mass-shooters have in common. The logic, like all good conspiracy theories, is child-like in its simplicity: all mass-shooters were prescribed/had taken/have taken various psychiatric drugs ranging from SSRI drugs like Zoloft or Prozac to painkillers like Vicodin. Scientifically, this is nonsense.

Correlation does not imply causation, as any first-year science or statistics student knows, so the fact that most shooters have sought treatment for mental illness and, thus, been prescribed some kind of psychiatric medication does not mean that is what made them become a mass shooter. In fact, one of the latest studies found that the mentally ill are far less likely to commit violence than find themselves victims of it.

So what is it that triggers the urge to kill in these shooters? Very simply, the idea of finally “being someone.” I am not alone in this thought. Writing for Thought Catalog, reporter James Swift says, “if you go out and kill a whole bunch of other people…you might just become a celebrity.”

One thing that mass-shooters really do have in common is not a mental illness or medicine from the same section of the pharmacy but a sense of isolation and insignificance. And that pisses them off. In the case of the Newtown shooter, police discovered that he had studied (media reports) of other mass killers and seemed to be trying to “outdo” them in terms of body count.

I am not suggesting, as Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce accused me of saying, “guns don’t kill people, newspaper reporters kill people,” but that some guys with guns kill people to get the attention of newspaper reporters, cable news producers, and the whimpering masses who stay glued to the TV to “cry with” the families, not realizing that they don’t want them there at all.

There are ways to cover these events responsibly, but it doesn’t make it a spectacle. There is a way to honor the lives lost, without making an anti-hero of the murderer. There is a time and place to discuss societally troubling issues like guns, mental illness, and individual hate, but maybe that time isn’t when everyone’s emotions are supercharged. Sadly, because of the way we handle things now, I’m afraid we’re going to have even more chances to one day get it right.

Photo by Erin via Flickr Creative Commons

*Since 1982, only one mass shooting has been perpetrated by a female.

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.