Are All Mass Shooters Mentally Ill?

Are All Mass Shooters Mentally Ill?

By Jim Windell

            In order to take an assault weapon into a theater, a restaurant or a school and start shooting people randomly you have to be mentally ill, right?

           Would a sane, perfectly lucid person do such a thing?

           However, if we can conclude after a mass shooting that the shooter was mentally disturbed, than perhaps we can console ourselves with the thought that there is a rational explanation for why it happened. We don’t have to think about why such tragic events happen or how society needs to change. A mentally ill person who is responsible for a horrific tragedy can be locked away and we can go on with our lives.

           But, what if mass shooters are not mentally ill? How do we explain a mass shooting? How do we handle it psychologically?     

           A new study is questioning the mental state of mass shooters. The research, co-led by Gary Brucato, research scientist in Columbia University's Department of Psychiatry in New York City, along with his colleagues sought to gain much-needed insight into the relationship between serious mental illness and mass shootings. Creating a mass murder database involved extensive review of 14,785 murders publicly described in English in print or online, occurring worldwide between 1900 and 2019. They then analyzed 1,315 mass murders of all types that occurred worldwide. The article was published recently in the journal Psychological Medicine.

           They discovered that only 11% of all mass murderers (including shooters) and only 8% of mass shooters had a serious mental illness. They also found that mass shooters in the United States were more likely to have legal histories, use recreational drugs, abuse alcohol, and have histories of non-psychotic psychiatric or neurologic symptoms.

           In addition, the researchers noted that most mass shooters used non-automatic firearms. Among U.S. mass shooters, those with any psychiatric or neurologic condition were more likely to use semi-automatic guns than non-automatic guns. They also found that since 1970, the rate of mass shootings has been far higher than the rate of non-firearm mass murder, and that the vast majority of mass shootings in the world have been in the United States.

           Commenting on the study, Gary Brucato said that "The findings from this potentially definitive study suggest that emphasis on serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or psychotic mood disorders, as a risk factor for mass shootings is given undue emphasis, leading to public fear and stigmatization."

           Brucato and his colleagues also indicated that their findings could help inform how background checks for gun purchases should be conducted. Furthermore, co-author Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia psychiatrist, said that "These data suggest that other difficulties, such as legal problems, substance and alcohol use, and difficulty coping with life events seem more useful foci for prevention and policy than an emphasis on serious mental illness."

           The bottom line is that if the United States has more mass murders than any other country and if we cannot write off the shooters as just somehow psychotic people, then what are we left with?

            That answer to this question may be more troubling than concern about caring for the mentally ill in our country. Maybe we have to examine the reasons why we produce mass murderers and how – and why – we foster their development.

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Gary Brucato et al. (2021).  Psychotic symptoms in mass shootings v. mass murders not involving firearms: findings from the Columbia mass murder database. Psychological Medicine (2021). DOI: 10.1017/S0033291721000076


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