In the wake of the killings in Isla Vista a week ago today, the conversation has turned to the link between mental illness and violence.
While it’s true that most of the mass killers in recent history have had a psychiatric disorder, the majority of people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, the link between the two most often goes the other way — people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than commit violence themselves.
Last week, as part of a journalism fellowship through the Maynard Institute and the Entertainment Industries Council, I participated in two mental health workshops. I learned that for every Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, there are many, many people with mental illness who will never pick up a gun.
The media’s intensive focus on mass killers and their psychiatric problems have contributed to a distorted view of people with mental illness, said Melissa McCoy, former deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, said during one of the fellowship presentations. The result is that people with mental illnesses are often stigmatized and stereotyped. This can prevent people who need help from seeking treatment.
I learned that journalists who write about mental illness have the ability to either shatter or reinforce these stereotypes.
“Violence is really just a small part of the story when it comes to mental health,” McCoy said.
She cited studies that show that “people with mental illnesses are responsible for no more than 5 percent of violent acts in America.”
But the belief that they will face stigma keeps many people with psychiatric disorders from seeking treatment, McCoy said.
While about a quarter of the U.S. population will have a mental health issue in a given year, only about a quarter of those will seek help, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.