NEW YORK – One psychiatry professor calls it “the conversation we’re stuck with,” a teachable moment growing out of horror.
Each time mental illness is cited as a possible factor in a high-profile mass killing, there’s a collective sigh among mental-health professionals. Even as they see an opportunity for serious discussions of problems and remedies, they also worry about setbacks to their efforts to destigmatize mental illness.
“Most people who suffer from mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are committed by people who are not mentally ill,” said Dr. Renee Binder, president of the American Psychiatric Association.
If, hypothetically, everyone with mental illness were locked up, “you might think you were safe, but you are not,” Binder said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s latest estimate, from 2012, there were an estimated 9.6 million adults in the United States – 4.1 percent of the total adult population – experiencing serious mental illness over the previous year.
“If you look at that large pool of people, only a tiny proportion of them will eventually commit violence,” Binder said. “How are you going to identify them? It’s like a needle in a haystack.”
Yet public perceptions can be hard to shake. Of the mass shootings of the past 10 years that are most ingrained in America’s psyche, the mental-health problems of the perpetrator became a central part of the narrative in several cases – notably the rampages at Virginia Tech in 2007, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, at an suburban Denver movie theater in 2012, and near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014.
Just this month, a jury convicted James Holmes of 12 murders in Aurora, after a wrenching trial that delved deeply into his mental problems.
In two rampages recently, the perpetrators also have been described as mentally troubled. After the killing of four Marines and a Navy sailor in Chattanooga, the family of slain assailant Muhammad Abdulazeez said he had been in and out of treatment for depression starting as an adolescent. John Russell Houser, who killed two people and wounded nine before killing himself at a Louisiana movie theater last week, had a history of mental-health issues, according to his family.
While these incidents seize public attention, there’s far less focus on the serious, systemic problems besetting America’s mental-health system, says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine.
“Forty percent of people with serious mental illness are going without treatment – our systems are fragmented and overburdened,” Swanson said. “When do we pay attention to this? We pay attention when there’s a horrifying mass casualty shooting, and then people say: Let’s fix the system.”’