Newtown Massacre: Stop Conflating Violence and Mental Illness

“When you think of mental illness, is this what you see?” asks artist Jennifer Mathis.

By all means, let’s improve mental health services in the US. Please. But if you want to talk about how to prevent rampage violence, s.e. smith is afraid you’re going to need to move on to other subjects.

A lot of conversations are being had in the wake of the horrific shooting that occurred in Connecticut last Friday, when a gunman took the lives of 20 innocent children and seven adults. The United States is having some hard discussions right now, in a year of awful mass shootings and a period of particular tension.

As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.

There are a lot of things I want to say about the artificial linkage between mental illness and violence; it’s a huge subject. But more than that, I want to drill into some of the specific things that have been circulating this weekend, and why they are wrong.


Let’s talk about violence and mental illness for a moment, though, because everyone seems to believe that mentally ill people are inherently violent and dangerous, and that only “crazy” people can commit crimes like this. Gunmen in rampage killings like these do indeed tend to fit a profile — one of loner white men who feel disaffected. Some have indeed been in treatment for mental illness at some point, but being mentally ill — even severely mentally ill — doesn’t predispose you to violence.

A lot of anecdotes have been circulating about mental illness — something that affects an estimated 25% of the adult population at any given time — this weekend. The plural of anecdotes, however, is not data. So here’s some hard data on the facts behind mental illness and violence, courtesy of a large number of scientific studies conducted in rigorous conditions and peer-reviewed to determine their applicability, validity, and usefulness.

“The vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses,” says the American Psychiatric Association. Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence. In fact, mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violence:

Despite widespread public fears of dangerous psychotic patients, individuals suffering from severe mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. One study revealed that they experienced violent victimization at four times the rate of the general population. In another study, 25% of those with severe mental illness were victims of violence as compared to only 3% of the general population. (Source.)

Your likelihood of being hit by lightning is more probable than that of being killed by someone with schizophrenia, a commonly demonized mental illness. In fact, “violence in the community could be reduced by less than five percent if major mental disorders could be eliminated.”

Each time an incident like this occurs and distancing language blaming it on mental illness and refusing to engage with other social factors is used, society pulls further away from mentally ill people. A study in Germany showed that levels of social acceptance for mentally ill people don’t go back to normal after such events. In other words, the stigma faced by mentally ill people increases every single time there’s a horrific event blamed on mental illness circulating in the public consciousness.


There’s also been a great deal of misinformation circulating about autism spectrum disorders and violence in the wake of speculation about whether the suspected killer might have been on the spectrum. It’s important to note that, one, autism and mental illness are two very different things although comorbidities certainly do occur, and, two, autistic people are not any more inherently violent than mentally ill people. Or anyone else, for that matter.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network notes in a response to the speculation that:

Autistic Americans and individuals with other disabilities are no more likely to commit violent crime than non-disabled people. In fact, people with disabilities of all kinds, including autism, are vastly more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. Should the shooter in today’s shooting prove to in fact be diagnosed on the autism spectrum or with another disability, the millions of Americans with disabilities should be no more implicated in his actions than the non-disabled population is responsible for those of non-disabled shooters.

While some autistic people can experience reactive outbursts, these are very different from methodically planned and executed violence. Anautistic meltdown is nowhere near the rampage violence exhibited by the killer in this case, and the false linkage between autism and violence perpetuates dangerous stereotypes about autistic people.


Most people want to assert that “no sane person” would commit a crime like this; that’s simply not true. Even the much-touted story from “Mother Jones” (which I’ll be getting to in a moment) about mental illness and rampage violence could only come up with “signs of mental health problems” in 38 of 61 killers. As Kate Harding put it on Twitter, “That’s 23 perfectly sane killers U.S. needs to own.”

And what about that “Mother Jones” piece? With such unclear methodology and no information about how the data were gathered, what kind of criteria were used, and who evaluated the information, that 38/61 number is largely useless. This is the kind of misinformation that’s being circulated about mental illness — and people accept it because it affirms what they already believe about mental illness, which is that it’s inherently dangerous and evil.

And what about that very widely circulated “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” piece, in which a woman compares her son to a cold-blooded murderer in a horrifically objectifying and deeply disturbing piece dangerously conflating mental illness and violence? This is not, as some people are trying to claim, a standalone narrative about one woman’s experiences; it is a statement piece being made at a very charged time, and one which suggests that mentally ill people like her son are dangerous and scary.

Ordinary people have the capacity to do awful things. And that is awful and terrible. And we should talk about why that is. We should talk about why it is that most rampage killers come from a very specific background, and about the culture of masculinity in the United States. We should also talk about the fact that all of the adult victims in this awful crime were women, and that women are disproportionately victims of violent crime, including rampage shootings like this one. It is not a coincidence that disaffected white men are targeting women.

Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski


Here’s the thing. We need better mental health services in the United States. Mental health advocates, patients, and professionals have been speaking out about this issue nonstop for years. Yet, society collectively doesn’t pay attention until something awful happens, at which point the focus is usually purely about how to stop mentally ill people from doing awful things, even though the vast majority of mentally ill people aren’t likely to ever do awful things.

There’s no thought to the benefits comprehensive mental health services would offer to society in general, not just mentally ill people — nor is there thought to what those services might look like. We live in a country wherelaw enforcement are often tasked with providing mental health servicesand parents of severely mentally ill children are told there are no resources for them and they should call the police for help. Yet calling the police is extremely dangerous for mentally ill people.

We live in a country where it is extremely difficult to access services and to maintain continuity of care, two things that are critical for mentally ill people.

If your tooth really hurts, you’re going to be extremely persistent about finding a dentist, because your tooth hurts, you understand why it is hurting, and you want it to stop. You’ll make the calls you need to make, sit at the walk-in clinic, do what you have to do. If you’re having a mental health crisis, you don’t have the capacity to fight for treatment. You’re likely to end up homeless, using drugs, and struggling to survive. You will likely be victimized, and you’ll fall into the justice system, which won’t provide you with adequate mental health services.

Mentally ill people need stigma reduction. And comprehensive services including early intervention and preventative care, diversion programs, cooperative programs integrating experienced personnel at every level, from schools to colleges to workplaces. And social support throughout treatment. And a recognition that mental illness isn’t the end of your life, but treatment is a lifelong commitment, and treatment needs may be complex. They can also change over time, requiring constant check-ins and adjustment.

Mentally ill people need more than a band-aid solution thought up in a hurry in a reactive response to a horrible act committed by someone who may or may not have had a mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see people taking an interest in mental health policy, but I am disappointed in how misplaced it is at the moment. If we want genuine mental health reform, we need to be covering it all the time, not just when we’re looking for a convenient scapegoat. News coverage of mental health issues is virtually nonexistent, and what coverage there is tends to be very poor.

By all means, let’s improve mental health services in the US. Please. We desperately need it.

But if you want to talk about how to prevent rampage violence, I’m afraid you’re going to need to move on to other subjects. Subjects like gun control. Like sexism and misogyny. Like how we talk about masculinity. Like how we model social behaviors. Like how we interact with each other as human beings.

By s.e. smith


Originally appeared at


More from our partners at xoJane

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About xoJane, Jane Pratt's lifestyle site for women, is not about changing yourself to fit any mold of what others think you should be. It is about celebrating who you are. Like Sassy and Jane before it, is written by a group of women (and some token males) with strong voices, identities and opinions, many in direct opposition to each other, who are living what they are writing about.


  1. Oh gosh. When will you Americans get some perspective?

    We could start a sweepstakes if you are mad enough? P^)

  2. Oh gosh. When will you Americans get some perspective? There are mentally ill people of equal levels of severity all over the globe. Hello, how you goin’ there? I’m Australian, I happen to have bipolar and yes I have in the past been psychotic for several months. I didn’t and don’t have violent tendencies-most mentally ill people are not violent from what I’ve seen from my first hand experiences within the mental health care system since the tender age of fourteen (I’m 21). BESIDES THE POINT. What is the catalyst for this article being written? The Newton massacre. It’s not new that people like me become the scapegoat, I guess its like ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ for the modern day, I live with the pain of such public option locked deep in my heart hoping it will aid in covering my ‘shameful birth defect’ Look what I’m trying to say is we, well, you the US cannot fight these two conflicting, immense battles at the same time (mental illness stigma AND gun control), especially at a time like this. Mentally ill in every country, on every continent, all over the world…yet the US is the only country where a large large majority of these massacres go down…every year. I think I’ve made my point.
    Gun laws basic maths:
    ‘Crazy people’ (like me) can’t get their hands on guns+ ‘Other people’ can’t get their hands on guns …therefore nobody has guns…=Nobody gets shot….
    Conclusion: When I finally summon the courage to visit your fine country, I can go to the movies…or visit universities…or walk past an elementary school.
    Without any fear.
    S.E Smith-good conclusion but I fear even an article addressing this public option is adding fuel to the fire of general hate for people like me and distracting from what needs to be done.
    Lets try and focus on the root the problem. Call me crazy but right now I don’t care if people discriminate against me because of my genetically inherited illness, me and my type make excellent scapegoats…but it’s okay because I may still yet live to witness the rise of my Martin Luther King of mental illness…but these children that died in you country, died at the mercy of that gun in that troubled young man’s hands without which he would have struggled to do so much damage so quickly and so easily…and those kids, they won’t see anything ever again.
    …what’s that thing you all say over there? Right. God Bless America.

  3. We should also talk about the fact that all of the adult victims in this awful crime were women,…
    So you’re saying that he picked a school because there were mostly women there? From what I understand he targeted that school because his mother worked there (and I could be wrong on that). But I wonder, if he had just happened to pick a work environment of mostly men would “we should also talk about the fact that all of the adult victims in this awful crime were men” have even come up or would doing so be seen as an act of misogyny?

    …and that women are disproportionately victims of violent crime, including rampage shootings like this one.
    While you may have a point on the rampage shootings I have to question the first part. What stats are you going by when you say that women are disproportionately the victims of violent crime? I know that is the case when it comes to sexual crimes, but violent crimes overall?

    It is not a coincidence that disaffected white men are targeting women.
    Its probably not. But are we just going to make the start and end of it, “They are attacking women because they hate women out of some fear of losing white male privilege.”? Or would we actually get into looking at real reasons. Maybe these guys actually were mistreated by women, thus when they lashed out they targeted women.

  4. ” We should also talk about the fact that all of the adult victims in this awful crime were women, and that women are disproportionately victims of violent crime, including rampage shootings like this one. It is not a coincidence that disaffected white men are targeting women.”

    Men are disproportionately the victims of crime, and why more women than men died in this particular shooting? Pedophilia hysteria, get out from behind that curtain, This was an elementary school.

    ANY job that has to do with kids, especially younger kids, will have pretty much any man even interested in doing the job judged as unmasculine, possibly gay, and definitely more sexual than comparable women also interested in same. And his interest will be seen as proof of his sexual interest in children, on top.

    Because men aren’t nurturing, they are evil – see, they have violence against women, violence against men or men caretaking people – does NOT exist.

  5. As someone who has struggled with manic depression from age 40 to 67, I have felt more stigma than usual since the SH murders. I think young children understand. Bad men should not have guns. I agree with media hound that we need to stop abusing the mentaly ill.

    • I agree with media hound that we need to stop abusing the mentaly ill.

      Everywhere I turn at the moment It’s coming back the same way –

      “Insanity Culture” used to describe a culture in which abuse of and negative views of mental health are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone abuse in all forms around mental health.

      I love the double standards too – The “Lets Cut Suicide” and talk about it positively openly and learn about it. Then at the same time be so negative in language about mental health that no-one in their right mind could miss the Cognitive Dissonance, and even the people being labelled insane could not miss the irony either!

  6. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    There are usually a ton of antecedants to violent acting out whether the person is called mentally ill or not. Family members and neighbors are often aware of them for months or years. There should be a way to request an evaluation when these are identified by anyone acting in good faith. The evaluation could involve a short inpatient that could be extended if warranted. I do agree that drug use adds a scary new dimension to decompensation– when I worked in inpatient, the revolving door patients (several acute admissions per year, typically) were connecting for amphetamines or hallucinogens in the poor neighborhoods where board and care homes are typically located.

    In the case at hand, his mother should have secured or sold the guns as well as requested the evaluation. In Aurora, Klebold’s parents should have monitored his activities and requested an evaluation.

  7. thanks for this. I literally screamed at the radio because of conflating this morning.

  8. I agree with Mr. Smith. I’ve been working with mentally ill people, as well as people with regular problems of living, for more than 40 years. I’ve also worked with violent men, some were both violent and mentally ill and some were violent for other reasons. The last line in the article is important to hear: “I’m afraid you’re going to need to move on to other subjects. Subjects like gun control. Like sexism and misogyny. Like how we talk about masculinity. Like how we model social behaviors. Like how we interact with each other as human beings.”

  9. Stop Conflating Violence and Mental Illness? Stop abusing Mental Illness would be a better message. The Violence with which mental illness/health is approached in the USA is quite staggering.

    Just an idea – but if you treat mental illness/health with violence may that lead to people with mental illness or health issues becoming conditioned to being Violent? I can see a very distinct order of chicken and egg there!

    If your going to blame adverts you better look at how you advertise yourself to others.

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