Mass Shootings and Mental Illness:
What You Need To Know

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.


It is so easy to blame mass shootings, like the recent ones in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton Ohio on mental illness. Presumably, that means it is a fixable problem. Mental illness, after all, can be treated. However, according to American Psychological Association (APA) President Rosie Phillips Davis PhD, the answer is not so easy. In response to the recent shootings, she stated, “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing thesevs traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.” Davis is not alone. Presenting at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy of Western New Mexico University explained that while people who commit mass shootings can share three traits like rampant depression, social isolation, and pathological narcissism, what they seek the most is fame.

Johnson and Joy (Johnson and Joy, 2016), reviewed data amassed by media outlets, the FBI, advocacy organizations, and scholarly articles. (See also ‘Media contagion’ is a factor in mass shootings.) From their research, they defined mass shootings as either attempts to kill multiple people who are not relatives or those resulting in injuries or fatalities in public places. They concluded that the prevalence of these crimes has risen in relation to the mass media coverage of them and the proliferation of social media sites that tend to glorify the shooters and downplay the victims.

Even more, Johnson and Joy concluded that “media contagion” is largely responsible for the increase in these often deadly outbursts. They state:

“Mass shootings are on the rise and so is media
coverage of them. We suggest that the media
cry to cling to ‘the public’s right to know’covers
up a greedier agenda to keep eyeballs glued to
screens, since they know that frightening homicides
are their No. 1 ratings and advertising boosters.”
(Johnston & Joy, 2016)

This quest for fame emerged as a predictable variable, and one that according to Johnson, “skyrocketed since the mid-1990s in correspondence to the emergence of widespread 24-hour news coverage on cable news programs, and the rise of the internet during the same period” (Johnston & Joy, 2016).

Johnston & Joy are not the first to note this trend. Media contagion models have previously been proposed by researchers such as Towers et al., who found the rate of mass shootings has escalated to an average of one every 12.5 days, and one school shooting on average every 31.6 days, compared to a pre-2000 level of about three events per year. Many scholars and experts assert shootings may also be spread through social media in addition to mass media. What these trends suggest, and what Johnston and Joy advocate, is a fundamental shift in the way we respond to mass shootings – one that would include much less dramatic media exposure. They explain, “If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in one to two years. Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one-third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed”. (Johnston & Joy, 2016)

Media reporting has an undeniable effect on us, and as Johnston points out, offers a reliable vehicle for mass shooters to satiate their need for fame, significance, and power. To change mass shootings then, we must begin with first changing how we respond to them.

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