Dispelling the Myth of Violence and Mental Health

Whenever a tragic event like last week’s shooting at UCSB happens, I first pray for the families of the young people killed. I read their biographies and shake my head in disbelief and sadness. And then I let out a heavy sigh, because with each shooting my job, as a person who fights tirelessly against the stigma associated with mental illness, gets harder. How am I supposed to convince a mom with a very anxious daughter to get help for her, because now the mom is even more petrified of pinning any diagnosis on her daughter — let alone keeping an open mind about treatment options. I mean, if I didn’t know anything about psychotropic drugs, I sure as heck would run the other way upon reading the likes of this slanted, irresponsible article published onWorldtruth.tv.:

Nearly every mass shooting incident in the last twenty years, and multiple other instances of suicide and isolated shootings all share one thing in common, and it’s not the weapons used.

The overwhelming evidence suggests the single largest common factor in all of these incidents is that all of the perpetrators were either actively taking powerful psychotropic drugs or had been at some point in the immediate past before they committed their crimes.

That effectively sends the message to all of those parents out there with kids who are struggling(including my own) that once you try to get them the appropriate help, they could very well take a steak knife to school with them and express what’s been building up on their insides.

I do have my issues with our “drugs first” culture — the fact that most physicians are more comfortable writing out a prescription than inquiring about diet. However, I know from my own mental health battle and from witnessing kids struggle with everything from schizophrenia to anxiety, that there is a place for drugs. They can be agents of healing.

With each article like this, the slight improvements we’ve made in stigma busting since the day of the last mass shooting are sadly diminished. Because the association of violence with mental health is again sealed together, an association that is popular but inaccurate.

On Thursday, May 29, I participated in a #HealthTalk Twitter chat co-hosted by Everyday Healthand the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) – New York City chapter in which we discussed the UCSB shooting and how to dispel the misconceptions regarding mental health and violence. A number of experts weighed in on the topic. The services director of NAMI-NYC shared the statistic that 96 percent of violent acts are perpetrated by individuals without a mental illness. Psychologist Joe Taravella, PhD, said research supports the view that the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence, and that substance abuse is a major determinant of violence and is the issue we should be delving into. That’s a point often articulated by Psych Central CEO John Grohol, PsyD, an expert on the topic. In his passionate post, “Myth Busting: Are Violence and Mental Illness Significantly Related?” Grohol lists seven predictive risk factors for serious violence found in recent research that are almost never covered by the media:

  • Growing up in an unstable, antisocial household
  • Parental history of physical abuse
  • Parental history of neglect
  • Parental history of both physical abuse and neglect
  • Binge drinking
  • Stressful life events
  • Being male

He concludes:

The upshot from this most recent research confirms what I’ve been harping on now for the past decade — the relationship between mental illness and violence is not a direct one. It is a complex one that is primarily mediated by substance use and abuse. Take away the substance abuse and you have a weak relationship that is likely no more predictive than the person’s age.

I think John says it as well as anyone. Violence is complex. Tragedies like the one at UCSB are incredibly messy. We may want to blame it on the “crazies” taking handfuls of antipsychotics or antidepressants or stimulants, and be done with it. That feels better than displaying all the delicate pieces on the table to study and consider. However, pinning it on the pill poppers is not only inaccurate, but it’s also unfair and unkind. And it makes my job much more difficult.

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