It seems like every day there is another mass shooting in the news: Newtown, Parkland, Odessa, Dayton. And most of these news reports allude to the shooter having mental illness. But is this true? Common wisdom holds that someone must be mentally ill to do such a thing. But is it really that simple?
Join us for a nuanced discussion with Dr. John Grohol, the founder of PsychCentral.com, as he explains how media bias and slanted reporting have contributed to the myths and misunderstandings of who is violent in America.
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Guest information for ‘Mass Shootings and Mental Illness’ Podcast Episode
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. is a pioneer in online mental health and psychology. Recognizing the educational and social potential of the Internet in 1995, Dr. Grohol has transformed the way people could access mental health and psychology resources online. Pre-dating the National Institute for Mental Health and mental health advocacy organizations, Dr. Grohol was the first to publish the diagnostic criteria for common mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His leadership has helped break down the barriers of stigma often associated with mental health concerns, bringing trusted resources and support communities to the Internet.
He has worked tirelessly as a patient advocate to improve the quality of information available for mental health patients, highlighting quality mental health resources, and building safe, private support communities and social networks in numerous health topics.
About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Mass Shootings and Mental Illness ’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: Welcome to the Psych Central Podcast, where each episode features guest experts discussing psychology and mental health in everyday plain language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. We are here again with Dr. John Grohol, the founder and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral.com. John, welcome to the show.
Dr. John Grohol: Always great to be here, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: It’s always great to have you. And this week, we want to talk about something that has been in the news a lot. Mass shootings and specifically we want to talk about, well, frankly, the way that the media reports on mental illness and mass shootings.
Dr. John Grohol: It’s a common issue whenever we have reporting done on mental illness in the mainstream media. It’s not always well connected to the kinds of conclusions that they come to. And it’s pretty frustrating, as both someone who has studied this issue for a very long time and has been writing about it for over a decade, I just find it very frustrating to continue to read the same kind of misperceptions being repeated over and over again.
Gabe Howard: One of the biggest things that gets reported after every single mass shooting is — what is the mental health status of the shooter? And this comes out before, sometimes, we even know the name of the shooter. People are already talking about, well, it must be mental illness, it has to be mental illness. That person has to be mentally ill. And I imagine that you have some stuff to say about that.
Dr. John Grohol: Sure. I think it’s where our minds automatically go to. It’s a very natural sort of thing to want to do, to understand the motive, to understand how could someone do this? But then again, I ask myself, how could a human being murder another human being on a one-to-one scale? So for me, it’s always been a question of murder is the line that you cross, I think, in criminal activity — not how many people you murder. Just because someone only murders one other person, we’re supposed to say, oh, well, that’s understandable, you know? It was a lover’s quarrel or something like that or a drug deal gone bad. And we have an instant understanding. But do we? I mean, are most normal people perfectly okay and feel comfortable with taking another human being’s life? I don’t think so. I think that’s way outside the norm of most people’s thinking. And I think that’s what gets lost in this conversation as well as many other things.
Gabe Howard: Let’s touch on that for a moment, thinking purely as a doctor, as a psychologist, John, not as a journalist, not as somebody that writes about psychology and mental illness. Is the definition of mental illness.. is it diagnostic criteria to do something that nobody else has done means you’re mentally ill? So the first person to climb Mount Everest, because nobody else has done it — that person must be mentally ill? Because it’s unusual? Isn’t that kind of what we’re saying when we say if you murder somebody, you therefore must be mentally ill?
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, I think it’s a slippery slope because I think it’s a far cry with being diagnosed with an actual mental illness by a mental health professional versus someone who has mental health issues, where most of the population could fall into the latter category. Most people have had mental health issues throughout their lives. They deal with trauma. They deal with grief. They deal with emotionality and upset and loss. These are common things that people grapple with. And that’s where the sloppiness in the reporting comes from, in the first part, is that they don’t differentiate between these two very important categories: mental illness and mental health or psychological issues.
Gabe Howard: That’s a really good point, and I want to touch on that for just a moment. Even in mental health advocacy, we have this tendency to say this phrase, well, he has mental health instead of what we mean is that person has bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or psychosis or severe and persistent mental illness. We’ve sort of made mental health and mental illness mean exactly the same thing. So there’s already that confusion that… Anybody, literally anybody, can have a mental health issue. For example, grief, which we’ve covered on this show before, grief is a mental health issue, but it’s not severe and persistent mental illness. Do you think that the media does any job of separating those two things out or do we just see all mental health, all mental illness, as exactly the same, no matter what the symptoms?
Dr. John Grohol: So I categorize mental health in the same way that we look at physical health. And when you talk about mental health, it’s actually a good thing. We all have mental health. We all have physical health. When people confabulate mental health with mental illness, it’s a serious problem. You can have mental health issues, which I think is something different. But every human being on this planet has mental health, just like every human being has physical health. And we can talk about things that you can do to improve your mental health. Even if you don’t have a mental illness diagnosis. And yes, I think that’s an important point that often gets lost in the conversation, that mental health is something that everyone has. Mental illness is something that one in five Americans have.
Gabe Howard: It’s like physical health. People have good physical health. It’s the physical illness that is the issue. And again, when we talk about the reporting of it, I think that the average person listening to this believes that any mental health can only exist on the negative. This really does boil down to there’s not a lot of understanding of mental health versus mental illness in our society. And that is reflected in the reporting and adds further confusion.
Dr. John Grohol: I think it is a confusion point, but I don’t think it’s the primary confusion point. I don’t think it’s the reason that people are misreporting on the connection between mental illness and violence.
Gabe Howard: Which begs the question, why do you think they’re doing it?
Dr. John Grohol: I think they’re doing it because they have not looked very hard at the research and the reports that have come out from respected bodies that have done deep dives on the research to understand what do we actually know about mass shooters? What kind of characteristics do they have? And it’s easy to go to the sloppy, easy reporting such as Mother Jones mass shootings database. But Mother Jones is not a research institute. While it’s usually a good source of journalism, this particular data point that they’re trying to put together does a really poor job in differentiating what different mass shooting perpetrators have as primary characteristics, say they confabulate, again, mental health issues with mental illness.
Gabe Howard: And do you think that’s just done because we want the quick and easy answer. Does society just want to say, “Oh, that’s mental illness. So as long as I avoid people who have mental illness, I will be safe from violence?” Or do you think it’s deeper than that?
Dr. John Grohol: It’s an easy, low hanging scapegoat. It’s always easier to have an alt group of people where they’re a minority of the population and to point to them and say, hey, this is the cause of all of our problems and then work on ways to legislate that small group of people. And that legislation obviously would not make much of a difference if you’re talking about mass shootings.
Gabe Howard: Well, not only would it not make much of a difference if you’re talking about mass shootings, but it would make all the difference to people like me, people who live with bipolar disorder, that would be impacted by those laws. So not only are we not solving the problem, which is mass shootings, but we’re making it harder for people with severe and persistent mental illness to seek treatment. Because last time I checked, we’re not seeing an uptick in spending on mental health issues. We’re just seeing it’s your fault, and then there’s the story kind of drops off there.
Dr. John Grohol: You’re primarily seeing a lot of rhetoric and a lot of promises that are easy to make but very hard to follow through on. When it comes to mental health spending in America, we’ve seen a decline over the past two decades that shows no sign of letting up and not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s really, really important not to gloss over that. Some people are talking about taking away a constitutional right from one in five Americans, the right to bear arms, the Second Amendment. And I think that’s a huge problem. I don’t want anyone’s constitutional rights being taken away for a medical or mental illness diagnosis.
Gabe Howard: I want to kind of ask a devil’s advocate question on that for a moment. You know, John, we live in the real world, and we don’t want somebody who is suffering from psychosis. They don’t know their own name. They don’t know who the people around them are. They think that everybody is an enemy combatant. They’re, for lack of a better phrase, they’re out of their mind. We don’t want that person to have an assault rifle. We don’t, right?
Dr. John Grohol: Certainly. And there’s a criteria that you can use. And we call that if you’re a danger to yourself or others. And we already use that criteria day in and day out today to help differentiate whether people need to have their weapons taken away from them. They’re called red flag laws, and they’re growing in popularity across the states. But that alone will not solve the problem of mass shootings because, again, most mass shootings are not being conducted by people with mental illness.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back speaking with Dr. John Grohol. So what would solve the problem of mass shootings?
Dr. John Grohol: Well, it’s good that you ask that question, because the National Council is a large organization that focuses on behavioral health, the profession, the administration of behavioral health in the United States, put together a research panel to actually look at this issue. And they released their findings in August of 2019, and they found that perpetrators share certain characteristics. And those characteristics cut across demographic, sociological, cultural and occupational groups. The characteristics that really identify mass shooters are that they are most often males, most often expressing hopelessness or harboring grievances that are frequently related to work, school, finances or interpersonal relationships. They feel victimized and they sympathize with others who they perceive to be similarly mistreated. That’s why the Internet plays such an important role in this harboring and encouraging mass shooters. They have a general indifference to life, and they don’t mind dying by suicide. So those are the primary characteristics that differentiate a mass shooter from everyone else. And you’ll notice that mental illness diagnosis is not in there because it is not a strong characteristic or an indicator that was shared by most mass shooters.
Gabe Howard: This raises an interesting question, though, again, as a mental health professional, John, somebody who doesn’t mind dying by suicide is not exactly mentally well, right?
Dr. John Grohol: If they’re suffering from psychological distress, that’s something different than mental illness, and you can’t forget the fact that there’s no mental illness necessarily diagnosed. Just because someone is suicidal doesn’t mean that they qualify for a diagnosis of a mental illness. It may seem like they should. And in many cases they would. Suicide in and of itself is not usually the key indicator of qualifying for a diagnosis.
Gabe Howard: And there are examples throughout history of people who have been suicidal or have completed the act of suicide who are not mentally ill — war times, criminals, people with their backs against the wall. This doesn’t mean that they have, you know, bipolar schizophrenia, major depression or psychosis. It just means that they have some strong feeling to do something. Biggest example that I can think of is like kamikaze pilots. They didn’t go and round up a bunch of mentally ill people. They found people who believed in the cause so much they were willing to die for it. And that’s not mental illness, correct?
Dr. John Grohol: Correct. That’s very true. There are other predictors and characteristics that are more important to focus on than mental illness. And reports like the one from the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center does a really deep dive and really good analysis of mass shootings that have been perpetrated in the United States. And a grievance is really a key indicator, someone who carries a heavy grievance for work-related things, school, finances, or interpersonal relationships. That’s a much stronger indicator than anything like mental illness.
Gabe Howard: And we can see how this plays out on a much smaller level. Human resources, people, have all kinds of ideas on how to reduce, not violence, but outbursts or conflicts or problems when it comes to, for example, laying people off or firing people or even discipline. I think a lot of people have heard that human resources or supervisors will let people go on Friday afternoons. And the logic behind that is that way, when they wake up on Saturday, they wouldn’t have been going to work anyways. So their life seems normal until Monday when they realize, oh, hey, I’ve lost my job. And hopefully that gives them time to calm down now. That’s not to prevent violence. I’m not trying to say that every person that gets laid off or fired is going to come back and shoot the place up. But it does prevent things like screaming and yelling, swear words on your way out the door. Flipping over a desk, causing public relations problems, etc., etc., etc.. So this is just like an extreme version of that, right? Mass shootings are an extreme version of that. Just you have a grievance. This is how you deal with it.
Dr. John Grohol: Absolutely, and it doesn’t come out of a vacuum, it doesn’t come out of the blue. Ninety three percent of attackers had engaged in threats or concerning communication. In other words, they’re making their intentions clear that they want to do something about what their perceived slight or upset was about. People have warning that this person probably could have the potential for something really bad to happen. And I think we need to be more sensitive to that kind of communication since so many mass shooters engage in that communication before an attack. We could do a much, much better job in capturing those communications and being aware of them ahead of time and then contacting law enforcement, see if this person really has potential for engaging in a mass shooting.
Gabe Howard: Well, that does open kind of an interesting question there as well. Let’s say that you get online and you talk about how you hate a whole bunch of people or that you’re furious and all of the things that you just said. What does law enforcement do, arrest you for a thought crime? It does get kind of sticky there. Right? Which is another reason that maybe people aren’t thinking along this. Because I know that every time I post something on the Internet, I don’t want to call from the police asking me what I mean by it.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. The threats aren’t generalized, they’re not like, hey, I want to shoot up my workplace. They’re usually pretty specific and they’re often directed to a specific person at the workplace, at school, and interpersonal relationships. They would send threatening emails. “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to slit your throat. I want you dead.” And that at that point, that’s where I think you need to draw the line and report that person to law enforcement, because I think they’re making a very clear and conscious effort to try to threaten you. And I think that’s a fine time for a good intervention.
Gabe Howard: To bring this back to sloppy reporting by the media. Why do you think that the media doesn’t report on this? We see lots and lots and lots of stories on, you know, mentally ill people. And but again, you’ve described direct threats, direct access, a plan. The last person literally had a manifesto of everything that he wanted to do, was going to do, and how he was going to do it. And we don’t see that played a lot. What we see are guns are good or guns are bad, and it’s probably mental illness. But his whole manifesto seems to be lost somewhere. But that was his roadmap, and it was posted before this happened.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah, and not everyone has a manifesto, obviously, but they do give out a lot of signs. And maybe one of the challenges is to help people become more aware of the signs to look for. Most of them don’t involve any kind of mental illness. Most of them are things like, hey, this person has significant stressor. They just lost their job. They just had a significant breakup that seems to be really, really kicking them when they’re down. They just lost someone that was really important to them in their life. You look at those kinds of things, those significant stressors, the threats or concerning communications. And then a third thing, unhealthy fixations. So many, 41 percent of attackers, have unhealthy fixations. That’s a pretty big group. So if someone is really fixated on an idea or a person to cause them harm or to try and take out some sort of retribution against that individual or that organization. I think, again, these are all good warning signs that we could all be more aware of and be attuned to. And then if you do find something specific or you do have something of concern, that’s what law enforcement is there for. It’s their job to figure out, hey, is this person going to be a problem in the future? Let’s keep an eye on them. Let’s talk to them. I think we have a lot of opportunities to do an intervention before a mass shooting takes place. And unfortunately, we’re failing to do those interventions. We are not focused on helping people when they’re giving us kind of clear signs. We’re in denial about those signs. And I think just too many people aren’t even aware of the signs. They think, as you said, mental illnesses is the sign. Mental illness is not the sign.
Gabe Howard: John, what do you think that the media could do better?
Dr. John Grohol: Well, they could stop turning to sources that obviously have some significant issues with the way that they’re collecting data. For instance, again, the Mother Jones mass shootings database is something that a lot of people are citing and turning to as suggesting that 60 percent of attackers have a mental illness or had signs of a mental illness. And those signs could have been a family member saying something like, “Oh, we always knew he wasn’t right.” I mean, that’s not a clear cut, you know, proof that the person had mental illness. And so they need to do a better job of citing sources like the National Council’s report, like the U.S. Secret Service’s report that have actually done the deep research into this issue and come up with a far less-biased sampling and methodology that gives us clear indications and characteristics to use to identify mass shooting potential perpetrators.
Gabe Howard: And of course, we’d like them to stop suggesting a diagnosis because nobody can diagnose anybody without seeing them. It’s malpractice. Even you, John, with, you know, a doctorate in this subject. You can’t hear about somebody else and determine that they have a mental illness. You must see that person in person, and you’re a specialist. You’re a trained professional.
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. It goes further than that. Yeah. As a family member, you can’t diagnose your family members as a friend, you can’t diagnose your friend. The only person who can make a diagnosis is a mental health professional or a doctor. These are the people who are trained in diagnosis. And if you don’t have that, then that person technically does not have a mental illness. And that’s the kind of proof, that’s the level of proof that we would expect if we were talking about that most mass shooters had a diagnosis of diabetes or something. We would want that the person actually had diabetes, not just that the family member thought maybe they could maybe have had diabetes.
Gabe Howard: John, I really, really like that example because there is this general idea that anybody can diagnose mental illness because we can all tell when our loved ones are a little off. But there’s no general hey, we can all tell if our loved ones have a heart condition or like you said, diabetes. So I wish people would start treating mental illness and physical illness exactly the same.
Dr. John Grohol: It’s so important to differentiate and start understanding that, hey, I’m in psychological distress, that doesn’t necessarily mean I have a mental illness. I might be going through a really rough patch in my life. That could last weeks or even months. But if I don’t see a mental health professional and get a diagnosis, then you have no proof I have a mental illness, but I have a psychological distress and might have some issues. But whether any of that rises to the level of an actual diagnosis, only a professional can make that determination. And we need to hold mental illness, and people who use mental illness as some sort of scapegoat, to the same standard as we would for any physical illness. It’s ridiculous that we think that people with mental illness don’t have the same challenges and shouldn’t deserve the same respect and just appreciation for the challenges that they have to face every day that we would for anyone with a physical illness.
Gabe Howard: John, thank you so much for being on the show. Do you have any final words for our listeners?
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. It’s through conversations like this where I believe that we can help mainstream media sources better understand that their sloppy reporting is actually contributing to the problem and not helping shed light and insight and understanding into what to do about mass shootings. This is a really serious national problem. Mass shootings remain a pretty rare event, but they are happening far more frequently than they were 20 or 30 years ago. And we need to come to grips with that and start having a better plan than just to suggest it’s all a problem of mental illness or it’s all a problem of this or that. It’s not. It’s a problem that is complex. And we need to report and solve it in the same complex, subtle ways that the problem it presents itself.
Gabe Howard: And in problems that have worked historically for our country, for America. Cars used to be more dangerous. And now they’re safer, not because of one big thing that we did, but because of lots of little things that the data showed: better cars, better roads, better safety, etc..
Dr. John Grohol: Yeah. And you could look at any kind of public health or crisis or problem and how it was addressed. Cars were a huge cause of death for many, many decades before the federal government required seatbelts. Cigarette smoking didn’t end overnight. Cigarette smoking took many, many decades of increasing warnings on the packages, increasing awareness campaigns, where finally we’re at the point decades later where most people don’t smoke anymore. And I think it’s the same kind of thing that we need to do with understanding how to decrease the frequency of mass shootings. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we have to have a better plan than to scapegoat a minority in our country.
Gabe Howard: John, I could not agree more. Thank you so much for hanging out with me. I appreciate it. I always love having you on the show.
Dr. John Grohol: Always a pleasure, Gabe. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: You’re very welcome. And listen up, everybody, please don’t forget to review our show on whatever podcast player you found us on and tell a friend. I’d take it as a personal favor. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling anytime, anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everyone next week.
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