When public discourse links mental disorders with violence or "craziness," it adversely—and unfairly—affects the lives of millions of people. Rachel Nuwer looks at the science surrounding these issues and finds that, while it often opens up more questions than it answers, asking those questions is the first step toward addressing the problem.
Seung-Hui Cho, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Elliot Rodger: In the wake of mass shootings, we often blame mental illness rather than lax gun control for making those tragedies possible. A Washington Post survey of 1,001 Americans found that 63 percent cited problems in identifying and treating people with mental-health issues as the primary cause of mass shootings in this country, while just 23 percent cited gun control laws.
Years of research shows that the purported link between mental illness and violence is minuscule at most, yet public figures continue to say things like, "Guns don't kill people— the mentally ill do," erroneously equating medical conditions with murderous tendencies. This perception helps fuel stigmatization of mental illness. Unfairly profiled patients may be discriminated against when seeking employment or housing, and some report that their satisfaction with life as a whole is blighted by society's fear of their condition.
What to do about this problem remains a hotly debated topic. Studies have shown that meeting people who suffer from mental illnesses tends to reduce the associated stigma. But much of the research behind that finding is based on rickety methodology, including small sample sizes. Meanwhile, some experts have considered changing the name of certain conditions, including schizophrenia—the disorder the public most often links with violence—to try to wipe the slate clean for patients. While the science surrounding these issues often opens up more questions than it answers, asking those questions is the first step toward addressing the problem.
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