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Improved Mental Health Treatment Won’t Impact Mass Shootings or School Killings

Improved Mental Health Treatment Won't Impact Mass Shootings or School KillingsSome well-meaning folks believe that all we need is “better mental health treatment,” and suddenly we will no longer see school shootings or mass murders. While better access to mental health treatment will help society in the long-run for numerous reasons, it will make little difference for these rare mass shooting events.

Contrary to popular belief (and media hype), mass shootings are not on the rise. And on the face of it, it is fairly ridiculous to focus so much “preventative attention” on something that accounts for less than one percent of murders in the U.S. in any given year.

We’re driven to do so for emotional reasons, not logical ones. But even if you employ emotion as the rationale for improving society’s access to treatment for mental illness, will that matter one whit?

Jacob Sullum over at Reason has the story:

And of various “factors that some say might have helped prevent last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,” a plurality of 27 percent favored “better mental health treatment,” an option that was especially popular among independents and Republicans. Leading defenders of Second Amendment rights have been trying to change the subject from gun control to mental health since shortly after the massacre, and it looks like they have succeeded pretty well. The problem is that controlling crazy people makes no more sense than controlling guns as a response to Sandy Hook.

Which is true, especially in the Sandy Hook case. In more than this one case, the perpetrator had interactions and ready access to mental health treatment providers already.

“Those mental health professionals who saw [Sandy Hook shooter Lanza] did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior,” Sedensky’s report says. “Investigators…have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime.”

Which is just as well, because mental health professionals have a pretty terrible track record in accurately predicting which patients they see will one day turn into a violent criminal. Much less a mass murderer.

“Over thirty years of commentary, judicial opinion, and scientific review argue that predictions of danger lack scientific rigor,” notes University of Georgia law professor Alexander Scherr in a 2003 Hastings Law Journal article. “The sharpest critique finds that mental health professionals perform no better than chance at predicting violence, and perhaps perform even worse.”

There’s zero research to demonstrate that improved access to treatment of mental illness will reduce violence in general, or mass shootings specifically.

Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, had pretty extensive interactions with mental health professionals. Despite all those interactions, he still committed that horrible crime.

And what do we do with these young adults who might be suspect for committing atrocities (using characteristics that millions of teens share, such as enjoyment in playing violent video games)? Do we force them into treatment? What kind of treatment has been shown to be effective at reducing violence and criminality? Answer: There are some models of treatment, but they are primarily focused on existing criminals and criminality — not young adults who are merely at-risk for some potential, future behavior.

So let’s look at what we have:

  • Mental health professionals aren’t great predictors of future violence
  • There’s little targeted, empirical treatment for young adults “at risk” for potential future violence
  • There’s no way to provide such treatment, even if it were available, without taking away that person’s civil liberties (if they decline treatment)
  • There’s zero research to demonstrate that such treatment, even if it were available, works
  • There’s zero research to demonstrate that improved access to treatment of mental illness will reduce violence in general, or mass shootings specifically1
  • Even if you provide state-of-the-art care to every young adult or teenager at-risk, some may still choose to commit such murders

Rational, Practical Help for the Problem of School Shootings

The problem with school shootings and mass murders of this nature isn’t mental illness. (Lanza didn’t even have a mental illness diagnosis, outside of some family members’ speculations.)

The problem is the surprisingly easy access teens and young adults have to not just one gun, but multiple guns and nearly limitless ammunition. Lock down your guns and ammunition and restrict their access to your children, teens and young adults — unless you’re around to supervise. Even guns the teen may own. This would go a long way to helping prevent future tragedies.2

This infringes on nobody’s rights. All it does is put up a barrier to impair — and perhaps prevent — a distraught teen or young adult from grabbing a gun and killing a bunch of people. If every American gun owner committed to restricting and curtailing unsupervised access of their guns to their children, teens and young adults, I think that would have a much greater impact than more mental health treatment ever would.3

I know it can be extremely challenging as a parent, but also being a more involved parent in your teen or young adult’s life might help too. That costs no money, restricts nobody’s civil liberties, and just requires a little more commitment and effort on a parent’s part. While I understand teens can sometimes be moody and secretive, we shouldn’t use a broad generalization as an excuse from disconnecting from their lives. “But they don’t want me in their life!” is the common retort. Well, as long as they live in your home and you pay their bills, guess what — you still have the power (and responsibility) to keep parenting them. And that means involving yourself in their life to some degree and understanding what they’re up to.

None of this, however, will stop future school shootings or mass murders. But a combination of these two latter things — restricting access to guns and ammunition, and being a more involved parent — might just help reduce their occurrence.


Read the full article at Reason: Why ‘Better Mental Health Treatment’ Won’t Prevent Future Sandy Hooks

Mass Murder: Price We Pay for Personal Freedoms?

Improved Mental Health Treatment Won’t Impact Mass Shootings or School Killings


  1. Many mental health advocates are troubled by the focus on the supposed link between mental illness and violence. But quietly, they also accept that no matter what the rationale, directing more funding into the mental health system in America is no bad thing. The system has been woefully underfunded for decades, and has suffered the loss of over $4 billion in funding in just the past five years.

    If we accept the money, however, we may also be reinforcing the faulty message — that this focus on mental illness will help reduce the likelihood of future mass shootings. []

  2. I’m not aware of any of these mass killings involving a sharp pencil or a knife. []
  3. “Supervised access” in my mind is just knowing who has your gun — or their gun — at all times. So if your son comes in and says, “Hey Dad, I’m going to grab my rifle and shoot some possum,” that’s fine. You know where he is and where the gun is. The problem with potential problematic gun use by teens and young adults is when their access is unrestricted and the parents have no idea when or where their guns are being used. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Improved Mental Health Treatment Won’t Impact Mass Shootings or School Killings. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Dec 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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