School Shootings and Mental Health

“Mental health is often a big problem underlying these tragedies.” — former House Speaker Paul Ryan


Immediately after the Parkland shooting last year, a number of politicians and government officials including President Donald Trump, suggested that mental illness was to blame for the shooting that left 17 people dead.  Subsequent reports from teachers, administrators, and fellow students questioned why more wasn’t done to prevent the shooting, when the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attacker, a former student, exhibited apparent behavioral problems–including violent outbursts–in school and at home against his family and friends.


A significant portion of the final report of the Federal Commission on School Safety was devoted to mental health and the commission laid out nearly 100 wide-ranging policy recommendations for improving school safety. Among those recommendations was a call for children to have better access to mental health services and for states to consider implementing provisions that temporarily restrict access to firearms for individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.  According to numerous polls, at least half of all Americans believe either that failing to identify people with mental health problems is the primary cause of gun violence or that addressing mental health issues would be a major deterrent to gun violence. The idea of increasing mental support services as a way of halting the number of school shootings may have broad support, but schools, local communities, and states have not yet found any specific strategies that might help mitigate student mental anguish and prevent further violence.


More importantly, Former Speaker Ryan’s claim (as well as those of many politicians) reflects a common misconception about the relationship between mental health and gun violence. And that same conclusion he drew is not shared by experts or widely accepted research.


There is no magic wand that schools can wave to improve mental health in their classrooms, and nothing to support the idea that with increased mental health awareness the number of school shootings will automatically decrease.


As many as one in five US adults suffer from some sort of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those rates are relatively on-par with the rest of the world, yet Americans are ten times more likely to die at the barrel of a gun than people in other rich countries. In fact, considerations like funding, resource allocation, student privacy, and the stigmas associated with mental health, all make the implementation of effective and affordable mental health services extremely complicated.


Mental health is not what makes America uniquely vulnerable to gun violence. And research has shown that students with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. In a 2015 analysis of mass shooters only 52 out of the 235 killers in the database, or about 22 percent, had a mental illness. Overall, mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent 1 percent of all gun homicides each year, according to the book “Gun Violence and Mental Illness” published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016.


A U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service analysis found that as many as a quarter of individuals who committed mass shootings had been in treatment for mental illnesses, and more than three-quarters had symptoms of a mental illness prior to the time of the shooting. But there is still little population-level evidence to support the notion that those diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes. Research shows that students enrolled in special education as a result of emotional disturbances are no more likely to carry out school gun violence than their peers. But stories like that of the Parkland shooter and the apparent failure by school officials as well as local law enforcement to address his mental health issues seemed to increase misunderstandings about mental health.


The American Psychological Association cautioned that it is important to keep gun policy and mental health policy in distinct categories.

"Science shows the most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior, not a diagnosable -- or diagnosed -- mental illness. The mental health needs of the country are separate from the issue of mass shootings," association CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr. said. "People with mental illness account for a very small portion of incidents involving gun violence, and research has shown that individuals with mental illness are no more likely to become violent than individuals without mental illness."


Barring gun sales to people who are deemed dangerous by mental health providers could better help prevent mass shootings, according to gun violence experts interviewed by the New York Times last year. That should also include sales to people with a history of violent behavior – especially violence against women and threatened violence against women.  And there is an urgent need to reduce risk for youth mental, emotional, and behavioral difficulties through the implementation of effective prevention interventions, as well as the need to identify youth at risk for mental illness in schools and connect them with needed treatment and services. This includes efforts to increase basic mental health literacy, particularly for those working with young people. Unfortunately, most communities and schools lack high-quality treatment for children and adolescents. Up to 79 percent of school-age youth have unmet mental health needs.


Funding for mental health services cannot come at the expense of other more prudent school safety measures and best practices, such as visitor management systems and lockdown drills that include door locks and classroom blackout shades, along with providing detailed safety plans so students know what to do in case of an active shooter threat.  Integrating mental health prevention and treatment services and supports into schools can provide many benefits, including reducing risk for mental health disorders and increasing access to care for those who need treatment while reducing the stigma of seeking help. It can also help provide early identification, intervention, and a full continuum of services while using a multidisciplinary approach.


Student mental health should be an important part of any school safety plan.  But it is not the only solution. And increasing mental health support will not make school shootings disappear.