After news reports that 26 people had been shot and killed inside a Texas church on Sunday, people working in the mental health field braced themselves for the media coverage.
That was because even before it was reported that shooter Devin Kelly had a history of domestic violence and had escaped a mental health hospital, people were speculating about whether Kelly had a mental illness.
Brighid Kleinman is a Louisville psychologist. She said after these horrific events, her clients commonly worry about the fallout.
“I absolutely have clients that come in and say, ‘I’m worried that if I tell anybody that I have depression, they’re going to think that I’m unstable and that I’m going to hurt somebody or that I could be dangerous,'” Kleinman said. “Ninety-six percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with people who have diagnosable mental illnesses.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll from 2015 found respondents were twice as likely to say mass shootings are due to problems “identifying and treating people with mental health problems rather than inadequate gun control laws.” And that perceived connection between violence and mental illness is exacerbated by speculation in the wake of these events.
On Monday, before any of Kelly’s history had come out, President Donald Trump cited mental illness as the reason Kelly had shot 26 people.
“This was a deranged individual, he had a lot of problems over a long period of time,” Trump said to media while traveling in South Korea. “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, but this isn’t a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very sad event. But that’s the way I view it.”
But the vast majority of people who have a mental illness never commit a violent act like domestic violence or a mass shooting.
Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of SAVE, a suicide awareness advocacy group, said there’s a reason mental illness and violence are often associated with each other.
“The misconception comes from stigma and people hearing media reports that immediately come out after a mass shooting that there was a mental illness tied to it,” Reidenburg said. “Most of the time, these incidents happen in a very public place, which makes it a newsworthy story, but it doesn’t make it that the majority of people with a mental illness are violent, because they really aren’t.”
The numbers support this. Less than five percent of U.S. crimes involve people with mental illness, according to a literature review published in the The American Journal of Public Health. In fact, other research suggests people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the general population.
Reidenburg said the fear of being stigmatized as violent due to mental illness — like the worry espoused by some of Louisville psychologist Brighid Kleinman’s clients — have can deter people who need help from seeking treatment.
“It ends up hurting us more because those people that are struggling don’t get help. And they get worse,” Reidenburg said. “Sometimes they become far more depressed, and sometimes they become suicidal.”