How can we explain shootings if we don’t report on mental illness?

After a tragedy like Friday’s shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, it’s easy to find out an individual state’s gun laws. It’s far harder to assess a state’s approach to mental health issues.

Responsibility for that failure lands heavily on the collective shoulders of the U.S. news media, whose job is to answer the “why” questions: We might not be able to answer why someone would gun down kindergartners, but couldn’t we help our audience figure out what society is doing for the mentally ill?

Freeing up resources is hard when news isn’t breaking, and mental health is a beat few news organizations feel they can afford. Usually, it’s the side beat of a health reporter or a columnist, or the province of investigative journalists. News organizations find it understandably easier to funnel reporting time toward a takedown of a bad institution, for instance, than toward chronicling the boring, frustrating, everyday truths of mental healthcare: Mentally ill people are statistically less violent than drug and alcohol users, many get better and yet few people get the treatment they need.

Even in a newsroom, mental health issues are easy enough to view as exotic and distant. In an essay in the American Prospect in 2008, Richard Friedman notes that 46 percent of Americans “experience some type of diagnosable mental illness or substance-abuse disorder during their lifetime.”

The “epidemiologic reality that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent stands in stark contrast to the impression most Americans get from the popular media,” Friedman writes, citing a 2005 study that showed “39 percent of all stories published about the mentally ill focused on dangerousness — the single largest area of the media’s coverage of mental health. In contrast to stories that discussed mental-health treatment or public policy, those that touched on violence were also far more likely to be front-page news.”

A “wave of amateur diagnoses” followed the identification of Jared Lee Loughner as U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords’ shooter, Vaughan Bell wrote in Slate in 2011.

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

And if you think members of the media are bad at understanding linkages between mental illness and violence, you may not be surprised how skimpily we cover the really wonkish aspects of mental health funding.

This Hartford Courant blog post about Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed cuts to mental health and addiction services in 2011 leads readers to a line-item PDF. A post on the site CT News Junkie goes into much more detail: The cuts would have taken offline “80 of the 152″ beds available at two treatment facilities in the state, and they would have shuttered nine respite facilities.

For another example, do Virginia residents know mental health care funding in their state has dropped 9 percent since 2007, the year Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech? Cho’s transactions with state-funded mental health care in Virginia were scattershot, his health records revealed. The former director of a Tech counseling center told a school counselor he didn’t have Cho’s records when in fact he’d apparently packed them up by mistake in 2006.

Here’s something more current: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, if “fiscal cliff” negotiations aren’t successful, U.S. funding of resources for people with mental illness will drop more than 8 percent, including mental health block grants to states, mental health research funding and criminal diversion programs. And even if the cliff gets solved, states will likely face federal budget cuts that affect such services anyway.

All of these subjects offer journalists ample ground to help readers make sense of an issue they generally grapple with only when something horrific like a Newtown happens. But readers are often shy about mental-health stories themselves.

California Watch told the story recently of the abuse and rape of a patient in a state institution with a graphic-novel-style video as well as a reported story because its editors knew the subject matter was a tough sell. Readers “don’t want to face those conditions,” Ryan Gabrielson, who reported and wrote the story, told me. “I think there’s a lot of fear in it. They don’t know how to solve it.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Steve Coon

    This the point in my blog earlier this week.

  • edward_ericson_jr

    Journalists have a bias in favor of the articulate. Just saying.

  • Muhammad Naeem Ul Fateh

    Since government is getting incompetent to provide job even incompetent to create oppotunities to engage people to use their creativity in any segment of society at large, we must need to know the activities of our children at home and outside of the house and surly we must need to know, what sort of people they mingle. Muhammad Naeem Ul Fateh

  • murmur55

    NAMI is a front for the drug companies. Their associates have a history of neglecting psychodynamic and trauma disorders, and pathologizing children so that parents will put them into the corporate mental health system for hospitalization and medication. They also had a “just let them go” campaign as a way for helping families “cope”. Abandonment into the malevolent health care system also increases corporate profits. The obsession with doing biological research is to benefit the drug companies, not patients. NAMI has given “Hero Doctor” awards to abusive psychiatrists who failed to intervene in security issues involving stalkers and multiple weapons in clinical settings.

    Stop funding NAMI. We don’t need any more special interests groups that operate against the public good. Demand a real health care system that is effective, efficient and ethical.

    And stop selling assault weapons.

  • Robert Knilands

    The main point is that too many writers don’t understand basic psychology. I used to get annoyed with the constant erroneous references to introvert/extrovert, as if those were merely the results of some type of personality “coin flip.” Now I just laugh at the people who don’t grasp how much gray area is involved.

    There will be all sorts of one-word or two-word categorizations in the near future. Then the writers will move on.

  • canardnoir

    Stupidity was the “seed” if not simply “bad genes”. Mental illness within the gestated individual shooter, was what was created. And “evil” acts were the final results.

    You simply can’t have “evil” without prior access to the other two.

  • canardnoir

    “Explain?” Why not just report in a manner that focuses on the cause of this evil act, not the symptoms?

    Much of the national media’s reporting, as well as the POUS, have simply chosen not to consider the nearly dismantled state of our mental health services. They are typically the first to be cut when budgets decline, and the last to be bolstered when funding becomes available.

    Within this particular instance, it has been shown that the mother legally bought several firearms which she obviously did not need. And prior to those purchases, she reasonably had full and complete knowledge of her youngest son’s mental issues. So who is to blame, prior to the first shot being fired?

    But while the federal government does not have a positive record when even recognizing mental health problems – their handling of PTSD affecting our veterans is proof perfect of that failure – to not address mental health as a primary part of any future legislation is to simply stick their collective heads, deeper into the shifting sands.

    Meanwhile, we can not deny – we are a violent nation!

    We’ve been at war or lock in some sort of military conflict for almost all of the past 100 years. Albeit in the name of “peace” – we continue to juice up our youth with “Black Ops” video games and Armageddon-styled video competitions, that make the actual “body count” into little more than a meaningless “score”. So as we try to find some sort of worth from this modern technology – other than an adequate pool of predisposed psychopaths from which to draw a volunteer military force, what else should we expect to gain?

  • YonderHero

    This was evil. Not mental illness.

  • Bonnie Jean Smith Author
  • Harold Maio

    but couldn’t we help our audience figure out
    what society is doing for the mentally

    The “epidemiologic reality that the vast majority of
    mentally ill people are not

    Mentally ill people are
    statistically less violent
    than drug and alcohol users, many get better and yet few people get the treatment they

    You are irresponsible. It is likely you do
    not know it, that is no excuse. Reporting on mental health issues is often
    irresponsible, as are far too often the people journalists cite To a degree
    they are to blame, but n choosing them you are as well.

    You intend something far more specific than “the” mentally ill, you are somehow unaware of
    this particular example, though “the” Blacks is clear in your mind. Why it is very difficult to
    say. Perhaps it is that we do not apply lessons we have learned. The choice you made is widespread, the error, at least to me, is

    The majority of all people are not violent, your words are a truism. Were one to
    examine it closely, the word choices are simply to include the term “violent”. What are the majority of Blacks not. What are the majority of Jews not? History made negative choices for each
    of those.

    Repeating “violent” that we not miss the term is a tool.
    You have exercised it too well.

    A great majority of those of us dealing with a mental illness get treatment, the proliferation of professionals meeting our needs make that clear. You intend something far more limited. You have not expressed it.

    You appear to be a teaching facility, what you are teaching is in need of correction. It is irresponsible. (Search my name for references you can employ.)
    Harold A. Maio. retired mental health editor

  • Dave McCall

    Finally, someone in the media brings up the root of the problem. Society needs to stop ignoring mental health issues and start removing the stigmas attached to them.

  • edward_ericson_jr

    No joke. There’s always a beat reporter covering cops. Someone on schools, maybe a courts reporter. Every state has a mental health bureaucracy, every college a counseling center, and inside the courts you have issues of guardianship for the mentally incompetent. Not so many stories about any of that. Lot of money involved; lot of lives affected.