With each mass shooting comes reinvigorated conversations about the role mental illness may have played in the atrocity — but do these events really affect how people think about the mentally ill? A study published in Personality and Social Psychology suggests the belief that mentally ill people are dangerous can spike after a major event, but when it does, it is short-lived.
America has seen a massive rise in mass shootings in recent years. Media coverage of these events often points to real or assumed mental illness as a factor that contributed to the violence.
Realistically, even though mental illness is extremely widespread in this country, the vast majority of mentally ill people are nonviolent, with only approximately 3% committing a violent act in the last year. Regardless, media coverage can lead to negative perceptions of people struggling with their mental health. The new study sought to follow trends on perceived dangerousness of mentally ill people over the span of 8 years.
Study author Miranda L. Beltzer and colleagues collected data from 38,094 U.S. participants who completed this online study between 2011 and 2019. Participants completed an implicit association test about danger and measures on perceived dangerousness, gender-career bias, and media coverage each week.
The researchers selected 6 mass shootings with high fatalities to serve as the events for this study, including the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings, and used time-series intervention analysis on weekly data to see their effects.
The researchers found no significant, lasting effects of the mass shootings on participants perception of the dangerousness of people with mental illness. The event that showed the most significant effect on the results was Sandy Hook. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, both implicit and explicit perceived dangerousness significantly increased, and while implicit dangerousness went back to baseline fairly quickly, the effects on explicit perceptions of dangerousness lingered.
These effects were not seen for other the shootings examined in this study. Additionally, Sandy Hook stood out from other shootings because increases in media coverage of Sandy Hook predicted future increases in perceived dangerousness. Increases in media coverage did not predict increases in perceived dangerousness for the other events.
The researchers said that “given the larger effects of Sandy Hook (vs. other events) on perceived dangerousness, and the stronger relations among its media coverage and perceived dangerousness, future studies may wish to qualitatively compare the type of media coverage after mass shootings: Did fewer articles about Sutherland Springs refer to the mental illness of the shooter as causal? Did more note that most [people with mental illness] are nonviolent? Did the gun violence prevention activism of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students help to steer the public conversation away from attributing violence to mental illness?”
“Another sobering possibility is that with the alarming frequency of mass shootings in the United States, each one is increasingly less shocking to the public, leading to smaller effects on perceived dangerousness,” the researchers added.
This study helped better understand if mass shootings cause significant biases against mentally ill people. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that the study follows overall macro-level trends, and it is important to not equate that with individual-level patterns. Additionally, though the sample was very large, it was not demographically representative of the U.S. population.
The study, “Effects of Mass Shootings on Mental Illness Stigma in the United States“, was authored by Miranda L. Beltzer, Robert G. Moulder, Casey Baker, Kara Comer, and Bethany A. Teachman.