Vanderbilt expert: Mental illness is often not to blame in mass shootings


When a mass shooting occurs there are often two camps of thought, those who feel the country needs stronger gun laws and those who blame the horrific act on mental illness.

But Jonathan Metzl, who is a psychiatrist, sociologist and medical doctor, says despite societal pre-conceived notions, most mentally ill people are not violent.

“While we try to grapple with the unimaginable horror of a shooting like the one at Fort Hood, it makes sense that we search for straightforward explanations, such as blaming this on mental illness. But it’s very important to continually remind ourselves that on the whole, connections between mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder and mass violence are slim to nonexistent, and are often widely overblown at times like these,” said Metzl.

Metzl adds that shootings on military bases or shootings by fellow Americans often disrupts our notion that violence is done to us by “others or “outsiders.”

Jonathan Metzl
Jonathan Metzl (John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

“Data on gun violence consistently shows that perpetrators of gun crimes are all-too-frequently people we know and encounter every day, such as relatives, neighbors and co-workers,” said Metzl.

Metzl finds that decisions about which crimes American culture diagnoses as “crazy” and which it labels as “sane” are driven as much by the politics of particular cultural moments as by the actions of disturbed individuals.

Metzl is the director of The Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. The Center for Medicine, Health and Society is an innovative multidisciplinary center that studies the social and societal dimensions of health and illness. Its scholarship, teaching and wide-ranging collaborative projects explore medicine and science in a wide array of cultural contexts, while at the same time fostering productive dialogue across disciplinary boundaries