Myths About Mental Illness and Violence

Patient Expert
iStock

As a mental health advocate, I appreciate when the subject of mental health is a topic in the news media and everyday conversations. In fact, this makes me feel incredibly grateful for the work of mental health advocates around the world. It is, however, important that both news stories and conversations include proven facts rather than popular opinions.

As the publicity surrounding mass shootings and other forms of violence with multiple victims has increased in recent years, we often wonder why someone would decide to commit heinous acts. Because there isn't a clear answer, news stories and conversations begin to focus on mental health challenges as a catalyst.

If we focus on mass shootings, for example, people tend to fall into one of two groups. Either they believe that firearms are the cause of the problem or they think that people not getting treatment for mental health challenges are the problem. If you take time to research the facts, the truth is the statistics don't back up either of those stances.

When it comes to the correlation between mental health and violence, there are a lot of myths that many people believe are facts. These myths are bringing the wrong type of attention to the subject of mental health. I encourage you to put aside whatever point of view you have and get your facts straight. Here are some of the most common myths surrounding the topic.

Myth 1: If someone has a mental health challenge there should be cause for concern

As someone who lives with mental health challenges and knows many other people with mental health challenges, this myth is plain nonsense. Television shows and movies in the past have depicted mental health challenges at their worst. Therefore, in discussions, it's implied that it is about people who are unable to function in daily life and are a threat to themselves or others. While there are some people who are living with complex and intense mental health challenges, that's not "the norm."

It has actually been found that 1 in 5 Americans struggles with a mental health challenge. The terms "mental health" and "mental illness" are often used interchangeably and include everything from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. You interact with people that are living with these challenges every single day.

Myth 2: People with mental health challenges are more likely be violent

This is one of the most popular myths about mental health. This is why it's one of the first conclusions that people jump to when there is an act of mass violence that we can't blame on a terrorist. The belief is that if it wasn't a terrorist than it must be someone that has mental health challenges. But, if you start looking at statistics, you quickly discover that this is anything but accurate.

In their position statement on violence in the mental health community, Mental Health America wrote, "We live in a violent society. Rates of homicide and other violent death in the United States dramatically exceed those of other industrialized, high-income nations. Our toxic environment of racial and ethnic discrimination and conflict, abuse of women, children, elders, and the weaker members of our society, and the decline of community and family connections are among the root causes of violence in the United States. Diagnosable mental health conditions are not. Unfortunately, public attitudes often associate mental health conditions with increased risk of violence. These attitudes are ill-informed and ignore several important distinctions."

"Having a mental illness is not indicative of violent behavior. Actually, on the contrary, those with a mental illness are more likely to become victims of violence. People take advantage of those with mental illness leaving them vulnerable," psychotherapist Akiami McCoy says in an email on the topic.

So, while people rush to point the finger at anyone suffering from with mental health challenges, the opposite is in fact true. Someone that is considered "mentally ill" in the eyes of the world is more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit a violent crime themselves.

Myth 3: People with mental health issues are more likely to commit gun violence than others

The opinions surrounding the purchase of guns by United States citizens with a "mental illness" continues to come up. This is a heated debate. If you want to start a riot on your social media page bring up the topic of gun control. But, first, make sure you know your facts. American Mental Health Counselors Association reported that, "only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness."

People believe that stopping anyone that has experienced mental health challenges from buying a gun is the answer. However, the only thing I see this doing is preventing people from getting the help that they need so they can continue to own a firearm for safety, hobby, or sport. People need to be encouraged to seek the treatment that they need. Discouraging them from doing this is a bad thing, especially when the statistics show they are not the real problem behind gun violence.

Truth: Mental health is not an indicator of violence

I understand that we want a solution to put a permanent stop to mass violence. No one wants to see another news report about a school shooting, mass shooting, or other act of violence of any scale. But trying to force a solution and point the finger to assign blame is not solving anything, especially when you are misdiagnosing the problem.

The myths surrounding mental health indicate that you should be afraid of people with mental health challenges. And, the news media concludes that mental illness is one of the reasons for acts of violence. But the statistics tell a different story.

See more helpful articles:

Hiding Your Anxiety: The Stigma of Mental Illness

Fight for Mental Health by Destroying Stigma

Gun Use More Likely in Suicides Than Homicides