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.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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