Does the media use persons with mental illness as scapegoats for violence?

Photo courtesy of Orlando police

Photo courtesy of Orlando police

Earlier today, I received an e-mail from a friend in broadcast media asking me if there’s a reason to discuss a possible role for mental illness in the terrorist attack last Saturday night in an Orlando dance club that represents the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Interviews conducted on the day after the attack with the ex-wife of the assailant describe him as “mentally unstable,” “mentally ill,” “disturbed” and “bipolar.” Editor’s note: There are no reports as of this posting that the suspect had a history of receiving mental health services.

The predictable response in our politically polarized country is for one side to take to Twitter and Facebook and place the blame on the availability of firearms. Others prefer to attribute senseless violence to mental illness. A new study suggests the media implicates mental illness as a cause of violence with increasing frequency and in doing so, is complicit in increasing the stigma experienced by persons with mental illness and their families.

Dr. Beth McGinty and her colleagues from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University found that news stories often link violence with mental illness, even though persons with mental illness are rarely violent.

Dr. McGinty analyzed a random sample of 400 news stories about mental illness over a 20-year period that appeared in 11 high-circulation, high-viewership media outlets in the United States. 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.

A deeper dive into the media coverage found that depictions of mass shootings by individuals with mental illness increased over the course of the study period, from nine percent of all news stories in the first decade to 22 percent in the second decade. The number of mass shootings, according to FBI statistics, has remained steady over the time period. Among the stories that mentioned violence toward others, 38 percent mentioned that mental illness can increase the risk of such violence while eight percent mentioned that most people with mental illness are never or rarely violent toward others.

Dr. McGinty made the following observations about the study…

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. 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.

In an ideal world, reporting would make clear the low percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence. 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.

In an interview with the Voice of America, Dr. McGinty further defined the problem…

Even if we had a perfect mental health system that treated everyone when they needed it, and gave them effective treatment, we would probably only prevent between 3 and 5 percent of gun violence, and 95 to 97 percent of gun violence would remain untouched.

Violence helps sell newspapers and so that’s often what gets focused on

Stigmatizing an entire class of persons with the most common disabling conditions in the U.S. is a small price to pay for maintaining the delusion that there’s a human fix to the problem our society can no longer ignore.


shutterstock_435859702On behalf of Key Ministry, I’d like to extend our deepest condolences to our friends in Orlando who have lost friends and family in this past weekend’s act of terror. In particular, we pray that persons who identify with the LGBT community in Central Florida and beyond might experience an extra measure of God’s peace and comfort, as well as God’s protection from any further acts of senseless violence. Shannon expressed our sentiments eloquently on her personal blog.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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