The rush to find a reason “why” the Sandy Hook shootings took place results from natural instinct. But, it is important that prejudice against those with psychiatric disabilities and resulting bias in reporting be acknowledged and addressed, so that those with mental illnesses are not painted with a broad brush.
It was a single individual involved in the Friday shootings, and statistics from many years of research show that persons with psychiatric disabilities are not generally more violent than those who do not have a disability. The exceptional cases are those persons with co-occurring substance or alcohol abuses problems, which do have higher rates of violence than the norm.
Almost as soon as the shooter in the Sandy Hooks massacre was identified, it was reported that he suffered from “a personality disorder.” While that has not been confirmed, the media has made connections to violence and mental illness, as they always do. On Fox News today, reporters for the network conceded this fact.
As the public and their political leaders respond to try to prevent future massacres like that in Connecticut, it is important that they are informed by accurate, substantive information based on the latest research on forensic psychiatry and on evidence-based practices in mental health services.
Bruce Spangler of the Raleigh based NC Mental Health Consumers Organization said he is concerned about the frequent mis-characterization of those with mental illness as being violent. Spangler said,
“People with mental illnesses are no more violent than people without mental illnesses. Yet, this kind of tragic event unfairly and harmfully tars people with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous.”
As the discussion in the coming days turns to the gun control debate and the trend in recent years toward fewer restrictions, it is important that the media report on the need for more and better mental health services as well.
As Bazelon, a national mental disability advocacy group stated: “A stronger commitment to vital community mental health services is long overdue and must be paired with improved gun laws in order to prevent future tragedies. This is a problem of political will; not know-how."
North Carolina has known its own share of gun violence. Leaders here need to address the longtime lack of funding of services and lack of political support for persons with psychiatric disabilities. Let this latest tragedy become a wake-up call and the impetus to address the needs of those with mental illness in North Carolina