It's Time To Stop Blaming Mental Health For Mass Shootings

New Report Destroys Fox's Narrative On Guns And Mental Health

Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

A new academic review from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy contradicts Fox News' conflation of violence and mental health, finding that the two are only related under narrow circumstances and that the vast majority of people with mental health conditions are not violent. The report calls for developing better "evidence-based criteria" for determining who is more likely to commit acts of violence and prohibiting them from owning guns.

The December 11 report is the work of mental health and gun violence researchers from top universities and research programs including the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. The report emphasizes a commitment to create evidence-based gun violence prevention policy recommendations that are informed by "the best available research" on gun violence and mental health.

While noting that it is important not to stigmatize those with mental health conditions, the Consortium's report recommends expanding the federal prohibition on gun ownership by individuals adjudicated as having a serious mental health condition to also include persons receiving involuntary outpatient treatment when a court has ruled the person is a danger to themselves or others.

The Consortium's approach, where the recommendation is based on academic research, stands in sharp contrast to Fox News' reporting. Indeed, Fox News' coverage of the relationship between gun violence and mental health has often failed to provide a nuanced picture of what is a complex issue, with the network unfairly stereotyping individuals with mental health conditions as prone to violence and using mental health to distract from the most significant factor in much of gun violence: access to firearms.

Following the September 16 mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. that claimed the lives of 12 victims, Fox News host Martha MacCallum suggested that a hesitance to institutionalize individuals with mental health conditions contributes to mass shootings. On the September 19 edition of America's Newsroom, MacCallum said, "Have we not become so PC that we do not understand that there are categories of people -- many people who do not deserve to be institutionalized, but some do," before asking, "But unless you have been convicted, you cannot be institutionalized. So what do we do about this?"

Similarly, during a September 10 Fox & Friends segment that distorted research findings to falsely warn of a "terrifying link" between video games and mass shootings, then-co-host Gretchen Carlson claimed that, "This whole is issue is so much more complicated than just gun control, there are so many other factors, mental illness [and] video games are just two of them." Criticizing calls for stronger gun laws after the Navy Yard shooting, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade also said on September 18 that "the focus really should be on mental illness" and accused doctors of letting dangerous individuals out "wild in society."

The Consortium's report, "Guns, Public Health and Mental Illness: An Evidence-Based Approach for Federal Policy," debunks the notion that there is "a direct causal connection between mental illness and violence," revealing that the suggestion that gun violence can be prevented by the institutionalization of people with mental health conditions is illogical:

Many recent gun violence prevention policy discussions have assumed a direct causal connection between mental illness and violence. The research evidence suggests that violence has many interacting causes, and that mental illness alone very rarely causes violence. As a result, strategies that aim to prevent gun violence by focusing solely on restricting access to guns by those diagnosed with a mental illness are unlikely to significantly reduce overall rates of gun violence in the US.

To buttress this claim, the report notes that only about 4 percent of violence in the United States "is attributable to mental illness." The Consortium also cautions "that violence prevention policies targeting broad groups of people with mental illness -- most of whom will never be violent -- could further stigmatize those with mental illness and potentially create barriers to mental health treatment seeking."

According to the Consortium, only under very limited circumstances a link does exist between "individuals with serious mental illness" and violence:

Most people with serious mental illness - which includes conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - are never violent toward others, and are in fact more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. However, research suggests that small subgroups of individuals with serious mental illness, at certain times, such as the period surrounding a psychiatric hospitalization or the first episode of psychosis, are at elevated risk of violence. In addition, the population with serious mental illness experiences high rates of co-occurring substance use, an important risk factor for violent behavior in the general population.

As opposed to Fox's generalizations about individuals with mental health conditions, the Consortium -- recognizing the significant gap between violence and mental health -- more narrowly recommends that legislation be enacted that would prohibit gun ownership by individuals receiving involuntary outpatient care where "there is a court finding of substantial likelihood of future danger to self or others." This prohibition would expand current federal law which prohibits gun ownership by individuals previously committed to in-patient psychiatric care.

Understanding that in most cases, mental health has little probative value in determining who is prone to violence, the Consortium also recommends legislation to take guns out of the hands of individuals with characteristics that can conclusively be linked to violence, and prohibit future sales of firearms to people in these categories. These categories include those convicted of violent misdemeanors, individuals subject to temporary restraining orders, and individuals with multiple drug- or alcohol-related convictions.

If Fox News wishes to cover mental health as a factor in gun violence, it would do well to adopt an evidence-based approach as the Consortium has, as opposed to relying on conjecture and falsehoods to push a pro-gun agenda while stigmatizing people with mental health conditions.

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