Gun Control and Mental Health

On February 14th, 19 year old Nikolas Cruz shot and killed seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Cruz, who had previously been treated for depression and reported to authorities for disturbing behavior, was still able to legally purchase an assault rifle prior to the shooting, reigniting debates about mental health and gun control.

Weighing in on the events in Parkland, APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, issued a statement that read:

While law enforcement is still piecing together the shooter’s motives, some public figures and news reports are focusing on his mental health. It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness. More important, it does not direct us to appropriate solutions to this public health crisis.

Last year, APA Books Published the 25th Anniversary edition of Violent Men: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Violence by Hans Toch. This title explores the personal motives, attitudes, assumptions, and perceptions of men who are recurrently violent. Toch answers questions about the dynamics of escalating violent behavior, and discusses what personal dispositions and orientations are most apt to lead to violence.

APA authors, editors, and scholars have addressed the topic of violence and aggression in multiple books and articles.

The APA also offers a variety of books and other resources on surviving and discussing trauma, including:

We hope that these resources can provide insight and serve as some help to any who may need it in these difficult times.

One Reply to “Gun Control and Mental Health”

  1. I respectfully disagree with a large part of the speech given by APA President Daniel in response to the public statements by the NRA and others:

    “It is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. Framing the conversation about gun violence in the context of mental illness does a disservice to the victims of violence and unfairly stigmatizes the many others with mental illness.”

    As a Liberal who wants better gun control, I completely agree that the NRA is trying to deflect blame. I also agree that mental illness is stigmatized enough; we hardly need people fearing that ALL mental illness is dangerous. However, leading the public to believe that most violent behavior isn’t rooted in cognitive disfunction – generically, mental illness – goes against everything modern psychology teaches us, and it may convince people who recognize warning signs in themselves or others, to brush them off.

    It also blames at-risk young people who lack self-awareness and social-emotional skills through no fault of their own, for being unable to make good decisions; the very thing psychology tells us isn’t true. We’ve read “My Amygdala Made Me Do It.” We know that poor development of executive functions affects inhibition, impulse and decision making. We know that PTSD can lead to violence, and that the very children who have witnessed shootings can develop violent behavior and lash out, simply because they don’t know how to manage their emotions. Cognitive function is at the root of every single thing we do. The APA stands for that, yet the president is telling the public the opposite, rather than saying we need to have a conversation about mental health care and empathy.

    Children and adults who are able to understand social behavior, regulate their emotions and feel empathy towards others, need to be aware of issues facing others that are unable to function as well. Recognizing, caring about and getting treatment to children and adults who are depressed, abused, neglected, bullied, and so on, is the key to ending violence, whether by their hands, knives or guns. You don’t have to be formally diagnosed or in treatment to be mentally ill.

    Isn’t part of the issue that the young people who commit these crimes are struggling with some form of mental illness, but often go unnoticed, poorly or failing to be diagnosed or treated? Within this article is a link to “Warning Signs of Youth Violence”. I’ve posted some of the highlights below. If the signs aren’t all pointing to mental health, I don’t know what is.

    I great wish for President Daniel to clarify her statement to the public. I believe it possible to protect victims of brain illness and those who become victims of its symptoms, through better information. Brains can become ill just as any other organ in our bodies. All humans share the characteristics of many mental illnesses, we just vary on the degree of severity and our ability to cope. Being honest with the public will work and bring forth greater understanding.

    I agree with the president that this is a “public health crisis”. A mental health crisis. We need honesty, awareness and accuracy from the APA. And, we need to put the blame on ourselves, our society, who have failed to make what we know within the psychology community public knowledge and public policy in a responsible manner.

    From the article:

    Expression. Some people use violence to release feelings of anger or frustration. They think there are no answers to their problems and turn to violence to express their out of control emotions.

    Manipulation. Violence is used as a way to control others or get something they want.

    Retaliation. Violence is used to retaliate against those who have hurt them or someone they care about.

    Some signs of potential for violence may be historical or static (unchangeable) factors like:

    A history of violent or aggressive behavior
    Young age at first violent incident
    Having been a victim of bullying
    History of discipline problems or frequent conflicts with authority
    Early childhood abuse or neglect
    Having witnessed violence at home
    Family or parent condones use of violence
    A history of cruelty to animals
    Having a major mental illness
    Being callous or lacking empathy for others
    History of vandalism or property damage

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