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    The Connection Between Gun Violence and Mental Illness and How It Is Presented by Mass Media

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    Mass shotings, contrary to popular belief, only account for a small number of American gun deaths per year. However due to the grand scale and tragic nature of these events, mass shootings often receive a large sum of mass media attention. Mass media, especially in the age of the Internet, plays an intricate role in the formation of public perceptions regarding the events that transpired in the aftermath of a mass shooting, as the public often relies upon mass media for information regarding current political and social issues. Ultimately operating as the gatekeeper to public information, mass media determines what the public is entitled to know regarding the events of a mass shooting and the discourse that follows.

    In the aftermath of a mass shooting, a familiar narrative arises amongst various mass media platforms such as televised news reports, newspapers, magazines, and their Internet counterparts. A familiar, yet distorted, narrative that imprudently links mass shootings to the fault of an untreated (or improperly treated) mental illness. The rise in mass media coverage of mass shootings has inevitably sparked a national debate regarding issues of gun control and mental health care in the United States. In the wake of a mass shooting, highly sensationalized coverage of the events flood various platforms of mass media (e.g. televised news reports, newspapers, magazines, and their Internet counterparts). The public-and politically charged-discourse that follows focuses primarily on the causal linkage between mental illness and the violent mas shooting that took place.

    Members of the community where the event OcCurred, as well as members on the outside looking in via national news reports, attempt to rationalize and make sense of the horrific events that transpired. Take the public’s reaction in the aftermath of the mass shooting in 2012 that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, for instance. Both the local and national community was mortified by the cruel enactment of violence as perpetrated by twenty-year old Adam Lanza. More, they were outraged in their collective struggled to understand the motives behind Lanza’s actions, “though his actions strongly suggest undiagnosed schizophrenia”-written in an article posted by the New York Times. This type of discourse, as exampled in the case of the events in Newtown only perpetuate social stigma and further discrimination of those living with untreated mental illness.” More, the discourse that has fueled the ongoing debate regarding gun control policy and mental health care in the United States serves the gun lobby and conservative supporters of the Second Amendment, as well as those who believe in the failed mental health care and psychiatric treatment in this nation. The rationale seems sound, for who but a mentally insane person could enact such grotesque acts of violence? However, this debate is nothing more than a politically motivated blame game hosted by mass media, which chooses to imprudently focus on the misguided notion that mental illness causes violent crimes.

    Thus, this paper attempts to explore the complex nature of mass shootings as an act of terrorism. The word terrorism is both heavily loaded and widely contested in terms of its definition. For the sake of this paper, however, the definition of terrorism implied is: any act of violence that inflicts terror among any person(s) typically, but not always, politically motivated. Moreover, the mass media’s gatekeeping of public information surrounding these issues in a way, and as a means, to frame mass shootings as acts of violence regarding failed mental health policy-only serving to satisfy the population that beliefs that these horrific events are the fault of untreated mental illness. Oversimplifying the issues of mental illness, mass media’s gatekeeping reduces it to a sign of violence and imminent threat. This paper will examine the common descriptors used in mass media and their failed attempts to classify young, white, male shooters as mentally ill, and thus, the product of failed psychiatric treatment. Furthermore, this paper will offer an examination of the external forces that play an intricate role of influencing criminals that decide to commit these large-scale acts of terrorism with the hope of addressing the issues in mass media’s gatekeeping and oversimplifying matters of mental illness and gun violence.

    “No One Saw It Coming” The Problem with Descriptors of Mass Shooters:

    Media rhetoric that is used with regard to mass shooters, as seen in many articles and newscast describing the suspect often describe the horrific event that took place as an event in which no one saw coming. A trend has risen, amongst the familiar narrative presented in mass media, in the descriptions of the perpetrator. The words used in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings in 2014 to describe the vengeful and misogynistic shooter, Elliot Rodger, was: ‘a quiet, troubled, loner in an online article posted on The Los Angeles Times. The article then goes on to personal accounts of those, whom were in close relation to Rodger, describing him as shy, and afraid to talk as a young kid, an old teacher explained, he often preferred to write his words down on paper. These type of descriptors used in mass media’s rhetoric has led to speculations and statements that Rodger was potentially living with an undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), moreover as his age increased, so did his anger and numerous potential mood disorders that should have been a red flag to those around him.

    This publicized diagnosis put forth by mass media instills the notion, in the minds of the public, that mass shooters-like that of Rodger and Lanza-just needed more attention, needed more people to recognize the signs, symptoms, red flags, and therefore, could have stopped them before they committed their violent crimes. However, these types of descriptors are not restricted to solely mass shooters. Words such as shy, loner, quiet, and socially awkward describe a large number of people living without mental illness. However, due to masS media’s gatekeeping function specific in the use of language-closely associated with mass shooters in the heated debate of mental health care and gun control- further perpetuates social stigma as is discussed in close relation to untreated mental illness.

    In chapter 8 of The Noonday Demon: an atlas of depression, author, Andrew Solomon describes the slowed progress of government-level policy making regarding depression as largely attributed to social stigma which propagates negative attitudes around mental illness. Solomon states that this stigma permeates the minds of many indigent people living with an untreated and/or undiagnosed mental illness, Solomon states that this stigma permeates the minds of many indigent people living with an untreated and/or undiagnosed mental ilIness, resulting in their unattainability of treatment, and further neglect by society. The mentally ill indigent individuals have no perceived choice then, but to live with what Solomon calls the ‘dirty secret’ regarding one’s mental illness. Solomon asserts, that this same social stigma is what has contributed, among other factors, to the slowed progress of government-level policy-making regarding depression. If in the case of both Rodger and Lanza, the mass shootings that transpired, had been a result of failed treatment of a mental illness; or the failed acknowledgment of these two men’s individual suffering with mental illness in part to either unsuccessful reporting or recognition of the warning signs the problematic nature of these assumptions still applies. The stigma that surrounds mental illness still inhibits many individuals from receiving adequate treatment.

    Furthermore, these long standing cultural examinations and societal treatment of men, as seen in mass media depictions of men who act out violently contradiction the notion that they may be suffering from some form of mood disorder.’ Carol Tavris elaborates more on the sexist treatment egarding violent men and women.

    Asserting that society often looks towards the influences of outside forces, Tavris explains men with violent outbursts, among other problems, have the benefit of the doubt pertaining to their psychology Whereas in the historical treatment of women that exhibit violent behavioral problems do not receive society’s benefit of the doubt; instead, women’s problems lay in the biological makeup of their brain, something Tavris asserts, is ‘inherent to their psyche.

    The rhetoric that surrounds society’s look outwards towards explanations that may have influenced male shooters exemplifies mass media’s gatekeeping function and constant usage of scapegoats during the national discussion of mass shootings and mental illness. This type of rhetoric works to frame male shooters categorized as lone wolves with a bubbling vengeance ithin, furthering support towards gun policy and seemingly better mental health care so that more men, like Rodger and Lanza, do not continue to fall through the cracks. With media rhetoric implying that these men could have been stopped, had society just paid more attention gives way to the realities of alienation imbued in society’s treatment of those individuals potentially living with mental illness.

    Quoting psychiatrist, Matthew P. Dumont on the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Tavris writes: than the ground, the case rather than the rather than the social setting.”a context, the individual Similarly to the DSM, mass media’s gatekeeping works in a similar fashion. Pertaining to young, white, male shooters, the frame further fastens itself around failed mental health care and mental health practitioners around these perpetrations failure to recognize the signs and symptoms. The notion that lack of social support and recognition inevitably led them to commit their ghastly crimes; that some how some way, these men slipped through the cracks. Contrastingly, however, Solomon affirms the flaw in mass media’s continued use of this scapegoat narrative. Further, Solomon explains that members of the middle and upper social classes who exhibit mental illness specifically addressing depression-actually prove more likely to recognize than in members of the lower classes.

    Treatment for mental illness, once again, made easily accessible to the middle and upper classes. For members of the lower class living with mental illness, they have always been impoverished, seemingly helpless, and as a result seek neither treatment nor receive any social support. To a certain extent, society rarely pays much attention to the poor, unless condemning them for their situation. In doing so, and because of their impoverished states, it allows for this narrative of impoverished individuals of society “slipping through the cracks” and them continuing on in their existence as “unnoticed”. Social factors, especially social class, play an intricate role in the prevalent case of young, white, male mass shooters in America; a role that mass media misuses as a way to use the mental health system as a scapegoat for violent crimes of mass shootings in the debate on gun control.

    Mass shooters, like Rodger and Lanza who both belonged to middle and upper class families, often operated virtually invisible to law and power structures around them, but contrastingly, became hyper-visible via mass media coverage. Shootings that occur in the lower and impoverished social classes rarely receive the same sensationalized cOverage in mass media- unless the events operates as a way to serve and perpetuate racial stigma seemingly ingrained in American society. However, when an individual had much to lose, or seemed like a normal kid, not one for conversation and/or social interaction, who those around him could have never expected him to enact such violence, mass media is quick to use these instances of mass shooters in conjunction with the national debate regarding gun policy and mental health care.

    If this were a matter of mental illnesS and failed mental health care, presumably their mass shootings would not have ensued. In mass media’s continued discussion of mass shootings, and why these horrific instances occur, the topic of social influences are rarely discussed they specifically highlight the shooters failed socialization and ability to slip through the cracks in order to commit their horrendous crimes. Moreover, what would only help and add to the nationwide discussion is how much of an influence outside social factors-such as social isolation of those living with mental illness only perpetuate lack of support and seeking of treatment- have on the minds of young, white, male mass shooters in combination with the accessibility of guns in America. Mass media decides, as the gatekeepers to public information, what information regarding frequent cases of mass shootings they will release to the public. Often, that information deemed acceptable for publication, excludes the key social and cultural influences on behavior and attitudes of the young, white, male perpetrators involved. Inevitably, this form of gatekeeping supports right wing conservatives of the gun control debate, like Ann Coulter, who falsely proclaim that ‘guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do’.

    Mass media’s failure to recognize outside social influences and other possible factors perpetuates the prevalent negative attitudes surrounding both mental illness and mental health care. In this rhetoric, mass media promotes stigma and discrimination of those living with mental illness. Thus, this narrative of mental illness, no longer recognized as a biological problem requiring careful consideration and adequate social support, becomesa fearful symbol of violent threat. Whereas statistics show those living with mentally illness are far less likely to commit violent acts than mass media promotes, an intensive study conducted in Sweden concluded that the percentage of patients with severe mental illness committing violent crimes was approximately 5% between the years of 1988 and 2000. This study offers statistical proof contradicting popular opinions that violent crimes causally link to mental ilness (such as mass shootings). Ultimately, what this study aims to provide is a new perception about mental illness and its link to violent crimes, further informing the distorted national debate regarding the mentally ill and violent crimes.


    With mass media gatekeeping public information concerning mass shootings, and the current debate on government policy, many problematic features arise. Mass media’s coverage in the aftermath of a mass shooting only offers the public a misguided account of the reality of mental illness. Throughout this debate discourse aims to alienate, and further stigmatize, individuals living with mental illness. Rather than calling mass shooters for what they are: homeland terrorists; mass media utilizes mental illness as a scapegoat for those who carry out these violent gun crimes. A majority of mentally ill individuals do not actually commit acts of violence. If they did, these individuals are more likely to be of harm to themselves, than to others around them. However, this is not to neglect that there exists a small number of those individuals whose mental illness does in fact, put them at a higher risk for violence.3 More, it is not their mental illness alone that places these individuals at a higher risk, but a number of outlying factors in conjunction with their psychiatric diagnoses that places them at a higher risk for violence.

    In terms the probability of violence in mental illness, there are a number of risk factors that mass media fails to acknowledge in their publicized accounts of mass shootings. In order to prompt a more informed discussion in the debate on government policy, mass media would ultimately have to consider and reveal these outside risk factors in its narrative of the events of mass shooting. Risk factors such as social stress, substance abuse, individual’s history of violence, and other psychiatric disorders that may be prevalent which put the individual at an even higher risk for violent behavior.” Using mental illness as a scapegoat actively detracts from the progress of the American mental health care as it perpetuate social stigma and further discrimination of those living with an untreated mental illness. Despite stricter gun laws and improvement in mental health awareness and care, and regardless of implementation of stricter gun laws- mass shootings still occur. In conclusion, until mass media as gatekeepers deem the public entitled to know the aforementioned information regarding mass shootings, gun control, and mental health, society’s question remains. The question about who is to blame, and what is responsible, for the seeming increase in number of mass shootings occurring across the nation will remain unanswered.


    Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 8, 2015, from 20150220-story.html Ann Coulter – January 16, 2013 – GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, THE MENTALLY ILL DO. Retrieved December 8, 2015, from Fazel, S., &

    Grann, M. (2006). The Population Impact of Severe Mental lIness on Violent Crime. American Journal Of Psychiatry AP, 163(8), 1397-1403. Gun Violence Archive 2015 Toll of Gun Violence. Retrieved December 5, 2015, from

    Hanson, H. Adam Lanza Was A ‘Loner Who Felt Little Pain: Teacher. Retrieved December 8, 2015, from loner-teacher_n_2308641.html Mental illness and violence.

    Harvard Mental Health Letter. Retrieved December 9, 2015, from article/mental-illness- and-violence Metzl, J. M., & Macleish, K. T. (2015). Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. AmJ Public Health American Journal Of Public Health, 105(2), 240-249.

    Palmer, B. Elliot Rodger Was Seeing Multiple Therapists. Why Couldn’t They Stop Him? Retrieved December 8, 2015, from er/2014/05/elliot_rodger_ therapists_why_did_they_and_law_enforc ement_ fail_to_recognize.html

    Solomon, A. (2001). The noonday demon: an atlas of depression. New York: Scribner. Steinberg, P. (2012). Our Failed Approach to Schizophrenia. Retrieved December 8, 2015, from to-schizophrenia.html

    Tarvis, C. (1995). Diagnosis and the DSM: The llusion of Science in Psychiatry. PsycEXTRA Dataset. Was Adam Lanza an Undiagnosed Schizophrenic? Retrieved December 8, 2015, from work-it-out/201212/was-adam-lanza-undiagnosed-schizophrenic

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