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The Stigma Cycle

News & Features | October 26, 2015

Mass shootings are an unthinkably terrifying concept. The fact that an individual with weapons purchased entirely within the bounds of the law could walk onto a college campus at any moment and open fire is scary, even as an abstraction. It is an event that has recurred countless times in the past few years, a reality that could arrive at your campus, office building, or movie theater. It has caused widespread panic throughout the country. It has caused politicians to call for stricter gun regulations. It has caused colleges and other public venues to invest resources into significant threat management systems. And it has caused the national media to erupt into a frenzy.

Many pundits and scholars, who say that discussion of gun violence actually incites more violence, have criticized this intense media reaction. A recent study published in Plos One demonstrates that this is likely the case—in the weeks following a mass shooting, the number of crimes of a similar nature increases greatly. The same study estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of all mass shootings come in the aftermath of others. Commenting to CNN on this study, Northeastern criminologist Jack Levin said, “It’s the excessive media attention that creates the copycat phenomenon. We make celebrities out of monsters.”

In comments to the Tufts Observer, University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor agreed: “The fantasy of getting notoriety through mass shooting has gained currency. Mass shooters are covered for days, and detailed articles on their life stories, backgrounds, and likely motives fill the papers and TV shows.”

The negative effects of sensational coverage extend beyond increasing the number of shootings—they also engender fear in society. This fear has manifested itself in countless ways, but one of the most harmful is in our views of the mentally ill. A study by Tess Experiments found that news stories that covered mass shootings carried out by a mentally ill person created a “heightened desired social distance from, and perceived dangerousness of persons with serious mental illness.”

However, it is important to note that often only white men are deemed
mentally ill in these cases of gun violence. People of color are typically further criminalized and demonized in instances of violence. Discussions of “black on black crime” or “criminality” proliferate, and no easy excuse is offered by the mass media.

This is rather unsurprising given the detail with which each shooter is described in the media and how their intents are often explained as the result of mental illness. The shooters at Newtown, Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, and, most recently Umpqua Community College, all had some form of diagnosable mental illness. As these figures are profiled in newspapers and on television, it makes sense that associations form between mental illness and mass shootings.

This characterization of mental illness as an indicator of violent behavior has become particularly prevalent with certain illnesses. Schizophrenia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and most recently, autism, have come under fire as disorders creating unhinged, dangerous individuals. This past week, a Facebook page called “Families Against Autistic Shooters” received a great deal of media attention. While Facebook did eventually remove the group, its mere existence demonstrates the types of sentiments being directed toward the mentally ill due to their association with violent crime.

However, these associations are not accurate. According to Tufts Psychology Professor Sam Sommers, “Some shooters have serious mental illness, some are high functioning individuals in many respects…and the vast majority of people with mental illness do not commit crimes like this.” Statistics back him up. A study by the National Institute of Health showed that less than 5 percent of mentally ill people commit violent crime and, perhaps more surprisingly, less than 5 percent of gun crimes are perpetrated by mentally ill people.

Given that associating these senseless acts of violence with mental illness is neither fair, nor correct, prejudices that result from such associations are equally unjust. Psychology author Andrew Solomon described how pigeonholing the mentally ill as violent is “an insidious form of targeting,” which might contribute to mentally ill people being harassed and excluded from society.

This is just the latest form of inequity to besiege the mentally ill community, which has faced both social and institutional prejudice for most of US history. For example, approximately two million people with mental illnesses are jailed each year. In thinking about this statistic, Finkelhor explained, “When psychiatric hospitals were largely disbanded [in the 1960s] the plans to create community support for the mentally ill were never adequately funded. Thus treatment resources are scarce, patients are not well managed, and they become desperate—get into illegal drugs or criminal behavior, and sometimes commit crimes to get help.”

Tragedies like this demonstrate the harmful nature of media coverage that paints mentally ill individuals as dangerous and creates aversion to them among the general public. Increased stigma decreases the likelihood of legislative focus on the clearly broken mental health system. And while Republican lawmakers have spent the last three weeks calling for renewed efforts to fix that very system, it is unclear whether they are sincere in their feelings or are just trying to steer the national conversation away from gun control. Finkelhor expressed cynicism about their efforts, citing sparse conservative support for funding community mental health programs in the past.

If the Republicans’ newfound focus on mental health is indeed merely their way of suggesting solutions other than increased gun regulations, they are reflecting another fear that the intense media coverage of mass shootings has spawned: the fear among gun owners that the government is out to get their guns. In liberal circles, the frequency of mass shootings has given birth to increased support for gun control. However, among conservatives, it has instead spawned a fear of gun control. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow described this demographic as “afraid of a time conservative media and the gun industry has convinced them is coming when sales of weapons…will be restricted or forbidden.”

This fear is reflected in gun sales over the past few years. While there is no exact way to measure total gun purchases nationwide, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has data that shows an increase in total background checks from just under 500,000 in 2010 to nearly 4 million in 2014. Furthermore, the rate of gun ownership in the country has remained rather steady over the past few years, suggesting that a majority of these gun purchases are coming from people who already own firearms.

When asked by the Tufts Observer what might be causing this trend, Mitch Kopacz, the President of Gun Owners of New Hampshire, explained that there is a “fear [among people] that their right to own things is going to change—magazine bans, assault weapons bans. There’s a fear that they will lose their guns.”

While the media’s sensationalizing, and perhaps indoctrinating, coverage may be disseminating fear among the population, there is some reason for optimism—both about our fears and their causes. For one, this is by no means the most scared Americans have been about violent crime in our history. According to Finkelhor, “We’ve definitely been through more fearful times when politicians like Nixon could win elections with law and order appeals. Right now, even some conservative lawmakers are supporting releasing offenders and reducing sentences, which tells me that crime fears are not high.”

Violent crime has been declining steadily for years, and some sociologists even suggest that we are at the least violent point in the history of humanity. And, in terms of the increasing number of mass shooting events, governments, businesses, and schools are working hard to figure out the best ways to prevent them in the future.

In 2013, Tufts established the Threat Assessment and Management program. The program is focused on “evaluating and addressing violence and threats of violence made toward members of the university community.” Its website has information on recognizing threatening behavior, reporting concerns to authority, and general keys to preventing violence on campus. This program is an example of how college administrations are working hard, in the midst of great fear, to transform these terrifying realities back into merely concepts.

As certain political groups cast blame for gun violence on mentally ill citizens in an effort to maintain gun rights, we must examine the repercussions of such actions. If there is going to be any hope for improving the health care and job opportunities available to mentally ill Americans, we need to stop the cycle of stigmatization that is rampant and ongoing.