Is the Media Over-Associating Mental Illness With Violence?

June 20, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Candlelight vigil outside Virginia Tech
Photo credit: Kate Wellington/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mass killings such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings are happening with greater frequency, but is mental illness to blame as much as the media portrays it to be? A new study argues no.

On the heels of the mass murder in Orlando, Florida, the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States, it may come as no surprise that a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found a disturbing trend among leading media outlets: associating mental illness with violence, despite the fact that it plays a role in less than five percent of violent acts committed in the U.S.

As mass shooting incidents have increased over the last several years, the research team, led by study leader Emma E. “Beth” McGinty, an assistant professor in the department of Health Policy and Management and Mental Health at the Bloomberg School, found that so too have portrayals associating violence with mental illness.

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Graph of the number of mass shootings in the US by year

According to data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2014, between 2000 and 2013 the overall trend of mass shootings in the United States increased. Credit: FBI, “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013”

According to a media release from Johns Hopkins, “just one percent of newspaper stories linking violence with mental illness [appeared] on the front page in the first decade of the study period (1994 to 2005) compared with 18 percent in the second decade (2005 to 2014).”

“Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that,” said McGinty. “But it’s not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness. Violence may stem from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse. But these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed toward assuming mental illness first.”

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The study analyzed 400 news stories regarding mental illness randomly selected from 11 widely circulated and viewed media outlets over 20 years.

“The most frequently mentioned topic across the study period was violence (55 percent), with 38 percent mentioning violence against others and 29 percent linking mental illness with suicide. Treatment is mentioned in 47 percent of stories but just 14 percent described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness,” according to Johns Hopkins.

“Stories about successful treatment have the potential to decrease stigma and provide a counter image to depictions of violence, but there are not that many of these types of narratives depicted in the news media,” McGinty said.

Looking into coverage of mass shootings, the researchers found associations with mental illness have also increased.

The study found nine percent of the news stories made the connection in the first decade of the study’s focus, compared with 22 percent of news stories in the second decade. The study also observed that the news stories were much more likely to mention mental illness as a risk factor for violent behavior (38 percent) than they were to mention that those with mental illness are rarely violent towards others (eight percent).

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Mental illness is not an uncommon issue and affects a large percentage of the population without causing the type of violence it is sometimes associated with in media coverage.

“In any given year, 20 percent of the U.S. population suffers from mental illness and, over a lifetime, roughly 50 percent receive a diagnosis,” according to Johns Hopkins.

The study’s analysis lends some weight to the argument that America does not have a mental illness problem as much as it has a gun problem.

McGinty acknowledges that mental instability does play a role in deadly violence, and there are cases where mental health issues were a possible contributing factor in mass shootings, but she argues that the stigma of tying mental illness to violence may do more harm by stigmatizing the disorder and further isolating those who need help.

“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents,” she said. “Despite all of the work that has been done to reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, this portrayal of mental illness as closely linked with violence exacerbates a false perception about people with these illnesses, many of whom live healthy, productive lives.”

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