Why Shocking Violence Doesn’t Indicate Mental Illness

CN: Discussion of gun violence and terrorist acts.

I want to go after the idea that mass shootings are caused by mental illness here for a bit. They’re not, and we keep saying that, but I think a deeper examination of WHY committing this kind of horrible crime doesn’t mean the shooter is necessarily crazy is warranted. I want to preface this with an acknowledgement that I’m open to input here and please let me know if I’m off on something or have missed something. I’m not a psychologist but I am thinking a lot about this and want to help reach a better understanding of this issue.

Violence is not inherently indicative of disordered thinking. There are healthy and/or reasonable reasons to participate in violence – defending yourself, defending your loved ones, participating in violent sports (martial arts etc), being a soldier, punching Nazi’s, etc. Violence is an extreme, but not disordered, activity in and of itself and our culture does not label someone mentally ill purely for participating in violence.

Beliefs that are in line with the culture (or subculture) that one lives in are also not disordered. This is why religious belief is not mental illness – it is not confused or wildly out of line with your culture or teachings. So beliefs, even extreme beliefs, that are in line with a culture of white supremacy and toxic masculinity are not disordered beliefs. They are wrong, and harmful, but not disordered by any definition of mental illness.

Participating in hate crimes or terrorist acts, even extremely large and deadly ones such as mass shootings, does not indicate that someone has disordered thinking. Their thinking may be immoral and based on wrong beliefs, but it’s entirely understandable without a framework of mental illness. They are behaving in a rational way given the cultural context they are in – they have been taught that they or their loved ones or their country are under serious threat from POC, women, liberals, etc. They have been taught that their duty as manly men is to respond to those threats with violence. They become radicalized in places like 8Chan to believe that they will be celebrated as martyrs for doing harm to those they see as a threat.

Mental illness doesn’t come into it. Insanity has actual literal meanings, in both the medical and legal sense, and nothing about a mass shooting means the shooter is insane or mentally ill. They are behaving in a way that is understandable without believing that they are crazy.

But it sure is easier and comforting for some people to think “Well, he’s crazy” than it is to think “Gosh, maybe our culture is so fucked that this seems like a rational thing to do for some people.”

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Why Shocking Violence Doesn’t Indicate Mental Illness
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