Mental-illness tag not so simple to explain shootings

By Lori KurtzmanThe Columbus Dispatch  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 9:06 AM

Original Article Published on



Invariably, after someone steps into a crowd of strangers and begins firing a gun, the words mental illness appear in the social dissection of what went wrong.

The ex-wife of the man who shot up an Orlando gay club early Sunday quickly told reporters that he was bipolar and that “he was mentally unstable and mentally ill.” She and the imam of the Islamic center that the shooter attended both attributed the violence to mental illness.

But mental-health experts say such acts rarely carry such tidy explanations.

“It’s one of those situations that’s easy to look at and say, ‘There must have been mental illness. He must have been mad,’ ” said Ken Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience program at Ohio State University. “As a mental-health professional, it’s hard to disagree with that.”

And indeed, many mass shooters have been found to have severe psychological problems, including the Colorado theater shooter and the man who tried to assassinate U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona in 2011. But pegging such horrific crimes to a mental illness can be dangerously simplistic, experts such as Yeager say, and can unfairly cast a spotlight on the huge number of people with mental-health problems who will never hurt anyone.

“Really, it’s dangerous to look at an incident like this and automatically assume the person had major mental illness,” said Dr. Megan Schabbing, a psychiatrist who performs suicide and homicide risk assessments in the emergency department at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital. “ Certainly, I’ve seen people who have killed someone who don’t have any mental illness.”



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