Mental Illness and Violence

As a member of the Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church, I am committed to the baptismal and membership vows to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” All three of these items are part of my work and charge, sometimes very visibly, and sometimes less so.

A recent article in the Washington Post states that a proposal is afoot to create a Health Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. This agency would engage in biomedical research into conditions such as cancer. But hidden in that agenda is also a push for “research” that will continue to link mental illness to violent behavior such as mass shootings.

This is not a surprise to many of our friends. The proposal comes from the Suzanne Wright Foundation, which headlines its work in cancer research. But it is also behind the efforts of Autism Speaks, a group which adopts an ableist attitude toward the condition. This has, in the long run, contributed to stigma.

Further, the underpinnings of the HARPA include attempts to reinforce the thoroughly discredited theory that mental illness contributes to gun violence. Not only have agencies been ordered to withhold information on gun violence, multiple studies have indicated that while some mental conditions may be a factor, they are not predictive. Far more important factors are revenge, resentment, alienation, paranoia, and narcissism.

Repeated studies show that people with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence (James L. Knoll IV, M.D. and George D. Annas, M.D., M.P. H. , chapter 4 “Mass shootings and mental illness” in Gun Violence and Mental Illness). FBI profiles indicate that only 25% of mass shooters are mentally ill, and only three were psychotic: (A good summary of these and other studies is available here).
The problems and disruptive conditions that stand behind these urges, such as white supremacy, toxic masculinity, entitlement, and domestic violence, are not mental illnesses. It is a betrayal of our vows as United Methodists to allow the evil of preying on the weakest members of our society to continue in any form. We urge our friends to become informed on this matter and take action.

October 21, 2019 addendum: read this article from Fact Check for a more detailed background.