Mental Health Care Doesn’t Stop Murder, According to Decades-Long Study

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A forensic technician ties a used police line together to seal off a crime scene. Daniel Becerril / Reuters

It’s been 16 days since a man shot at a crowd of 22,000 people, murdered 59 and injured many more at a concert in Las Vegas. After the event, as after other mass shootings in the U.S., a familiar cycle occurred: speculation as to whether the shooter was mentally ill, coverage all but proving (with exception) the shooter was not and the discussion of this trope in the media. Now, a new study from Canada further complicates the idea that there’s any meaningful connection between severe mental illness and violent crime.

Researchers looked at the rates of murder committed by people with “serious mental illness” in Ontario, Canada, from 1987 to 2012. Sifting through a mix of records from Ontario courts and other sources, they found that though psychiatric hospitals closed and access to mental health care declined in those years, the murder rates by those with serious mental illness stayed the same.

Of the 4,402 adults who committed murder in Ontario between 1987 and 2012, 163 had a known serious mental illness. While this work relates to a more specific debate on whether increased access to mental health care would reduce murder rates in Canada, it also alights on a very live meme in the United States: the conversation around mental illness in mass shootings.

To be clear, these researchers looked at all murders in Ontario—not mass shootings, and not in the U.S. But their findings mesh with other findings that highlight possible misperceptions around mental illness and violent crime. A 2001 study examined 34 teens who had committed mass murders and found that only 23 percent of them had a documented psychiatric history of any kind, meaning three out of four did not. Many more of them were described as loners, had problems with substance abuse or demonstrated a fascination with weapons.

A separate literature review found that male gender was another, separate strong predictor. In an interview with ProPublica, sociologist Jeffrey Swanson suggests focusing on “mental illness” is a category error when there are more specific indicators of violence. And as Richard Friedman wrote in The New York Times, while some mass killers do carry a psychiatric diagnosis, they don’t necessarily see themselves as mentally ill and aren’t always in contact with the mental health care system.

As Beth McGinty, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, previously told Newsweek, some have raised the question of whether mass killings are more often attributed to mental illness when the killer is white. But as of yet, no one has systematically studied the association between these two things in media coverage.

Former President Barack Obama called for better mental health care in 2013 (he did also say that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators). House Speaker Paul Ryan called mental health care reform a “critical ingredient” in reducing mass shootings.

That’s a claim met with skepticism by many mental health professionals. Columbia psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum has previously told Newsweek that these statements often come as willful misdirection from politicians and members of the NRA. Regardless of their intent and their veracity, they’ll likely be discussed again the next time a mass shooting occurs.  

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