Mental Health and Violence?

The Friends organizing our website have decided to try to get some conversations going on the site. This is just another way to connect, for those who like this method. Here is an example of a conversation that Gary Whiting and Lee Gugerty had recently over email, when Lee commented on an article Gary wrote in the newsletter on how mental health is related to violence. This example is all in a single post on this Quaker Conversations page, which is set up like a weblog (i.e., people can post comments and reply, reply again, … , conversation). This example does not use the weblog features, since it happened over email; but in the future conversations like this could happen using the post/reply/reply features of this page.

On 9/6/2022 Lee Gugerty wrote:

Gary,       I have a comment on your piece in the September Friends Meeting of SA newsletter, which you wrote with Poonam Sharma. My comment is on the excerpt below:

     “The recent wave of mass shootings has opened an important discussion: How do we go back to being a society in which this is a rare occurrence, rather than a common one?

     Many feel that controlling access to firearms is the answer. Statistics from other countries with stricter gun control laws support this viewpoint, with the United States ranking first among developed countries in firearm homicides, given our easier access. Those who find this conclusion unacceptable counter that mass shootings stem primarily from mental health issues. Certainly, this view has some obvious validity, as we can all agree that individuals who commit such violence are disturbed. But in terms of solutions, what would it mean to treat this primarily as a mental health issue? As a society, what should we be doing?”   [Note: click here to read the whole article in our September newsletter ]

I’m a cognitive psychologist by training and have looked into some of the social science research on causes of violent behavior for courses I have taught.

My understanding of this research literature is that mental illnesses like major depression, bipolar and schizophrenia are correlated with SMALL increases in tendency towards violence, but other factors have much stronger correlations with violence, including gender (male), age (younger) and especially substance abuse disorder. Males were 7 times more likely than females to be convicted of a violent crime in one Swedish study. Importantly, more than 95% of males in this study were NOT convicted of a violent crime.

So the idea that improving mental health services will reduce violence, which is so often mentioned by politicians and news commentators after mass shooting, ignores potentially more effective ways to reduce violence. Someone could say that substance abuse disorder is a mental illness. This is true, but I don’t think this is what the pols/commentators/public think of as mental illness. Other research on public perceptions shows that the general public vastly overestimates (by a factor of 5-10) the likelihood that people with mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia will act violently.

This research above suggests better questions for reducing violence.

  • Why do a small percentage of younger males commit much more violence than others? How can we deal with this problem?
  • Why is substance abuse so strongly linked to violence? How can we treat and reduce substance abuse?

 Lee Gugerty

On 9/7/2022 Gary Whiting wrote:

Lee…..I agree with all that is said here.  I have been dealing a lot lately with what might be called “toxic masculinity” which to a great degree is synonymous with a glorification of violence, active threats and making clear that “you better not fuck with me” (excuse the language, but it is germane to the discussion).  I have worked with such individuals over the years, though, and the good news is that they do respond slowly to one-on-one attention, and there is often a core of hurt behind that anger.  I don’t have the study in front of me, but years ago one of the Nordic countries developed a treatment center for their “lifers”, ie violent criminals with no parole possibilities….so instead of just confinement they had daily groups, psychotherapy, etc……the results were encouraging, in terms of these men being re-humanized.   I need to look at that again, I cited it in a paper I did on sociopathy decades ago……so, yes, I value this topic and getting to trade thoughts with you, please respond and share whatever this prompts in you, would love to hear…..back to work now, though!    Gary

On 9/12/2022  Lee Gugerty wrote:

Gary,     I agree with your comments about toxic masculinity and that’s very hopeful about your positive work with people with a lot of anger.                I have also heard that some people who committed mass shootings were victims of bullying (though that is just anecdotal evidence).                                                   Below are some letters to the editor relevant to this question.


  Letters to the Editor: New York Times Sept. 7, 2022  What Mass Shooters Often Have in Common

     “Life Crisis Is Often a Warning of Mass Shootings” (front page, Aug. 23) suggests that personal crises often motivate a perpetrator to carry out a mass shooting. However, it fails to highlight the significant role that domestic violence plays in predicting mass shootings in the United States.

     Last year, my colleagues and I published a study that found that nearly seven in 10 mass shootings in the U.S. have a connection to domestic violence — either through the relationship between the perpetrator and victims or through the perpetrator’s history of domestic violence.

The relationship between guns and domestic violence is well known. A woman is five times more likely to be murdered when her abuser has access to a gun. More than half of all intimate partner homicides are perpetrated with a firearm. Our research found that a history of domestic violence extends to mass shootings as well.

     The first step in addressing this deadly intersection is by bringing it to the forefront of conversations. We must stop treating domestic violence as “private violence,” immune from intervention and separate from other mass shootings. Our lawmakers must prioritize legislation to prevent the purchase and possession of firearms by those with histories of domestic violence. The “warning signs” are right in front of us. Will we continue to ignore them?

Lisa Geller, Washington
The writer is the director of state affairs at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

To the Editor:

     We have seen several horrific incidents in recent months, from increased violence in the New York City subways to the Uvalde school shooting. Despite these tragedies, we at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City have continued to assert that mental illness does not necessarily cause this violence.

     People living with severe and chronic mental illness are 11 times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, but the media and politicians reinforce the opposite notion. This article makes it clear that there are many red flags, like a personal crisis or childhood trauma, that are more accurate indicators of an individual’s likelihood of harming others.

     We thank the author, Shaila Dewan, for destigmatizing how we talk about mental illness. Most people with mental illness are not criminals and are not violent. Nearly one in five adults lives with mental illness, and the other four have mentally ill family, friends or neighbors.

We’ll get nowhere in our advocacy toward mental health equity, in building support systems and even in expanding insurance coverage if we continue reinforcing misconceptions about what mental illness looks like and preventing people from getting the support they need.

Matt Kudish, New York
The writer is the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC (NAMI-NYC).

 To the Editor:

     School shootings are preventable. According to an analysis by the U.S. Secret Service of 41 targeted school attacks, in almost every case, students and other community members observed warning signs in advance of school violence. Programs that teach what these warning signs are and how to take action have been proven to work.

     Sandy Hook Promise’s “Know the Signs” programs have helped prevent more than 10 credible planned mass shooting attacks in rural, urban and suburban schools, along with hundreds of youth suicides and countless acts of violence. All of these programs are accessible online, at no cost to schools.

     Instead of waiting for the next school shooting, let’s make sure that every school in the country is working to be sure that students know what the warning signs are and — even more important — how to get help. We need to empower more kids to be “upstanders” in prevention instead of bystanders to tragedy.

Nicole Hockley,  Newtown, Conn.
The writer is the co-founder and chief executive of Sandy Hook Promise.

Later on 9/12/2022 Gary Whiting wrote:

Lee,…..excellent insight in what you sent…..we sure need some common sense and practical solutions, don’t we? Thanks for passing this on…..