A study by behavioral researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, to be published in the journal Behavioral Science in April, concludes that having a mental illness doesn’t make a person more likely to commit gun violence.
A better indicator of gun violence is ready access to firearms, according to the study.
Yu Lu, a postdoctoral research fellow, was lead author of the study, conducted with guidance by her mentor and co-author, Dr. Jeff Temple, a clinical psychologist and professor at the medical branch.
The study looked at the association between gun violence and mental health in a group of 663 young adults, all part of a study that has been going on for several years.
“We recruited 1,042 adolescents from seven high schools in the Houston area and have been following up with them every year looking at risk behaviors,” Lu said. Lu specializes in risk behaviors in adolescents and young adults including violent behavior, substance abuse and mental health issues.
When the longitudinal study subjects reached age 20 or 21, questions about firearms and behavior involving firearms were added to the questionnaire. Attrition from the core group resulted in a final study group of 663.
“We examined a range of mental health issues including PTSD, anxiety, depression and many others and we found that access to guns, not mental health, was the strongest indicator of threatening behavior with a firearm,” Lu said.
Lu was motivated to conduct the study by concerns she shared with other clinicians and academics over a tendency by media to connect or suggest mental health problems when talking about incidents of gun violence, she said.
“There’s a lot of public perception about the link between gun violence and mental health, leading a lot of people to think mental health is the cause of gun violence,” Lu said. “As scientists, we are concerned about the stigmatizing of people with mental health issues and a perception that is not backed up by scientific evidence.”
Trying to provide scientific evidence that either proved or disproved the link between mental health issues and gun violence, the study showed that people who had access to guns, compared to those with no such access, were over 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun, even after controlling for a number of demographic and mental health variables.
At the same time, most mental health symptoms were found to be unrelated to gun violence.
The study looked at gun violence across a broad spectrum, not specifically singling out school shootings, victims of which account for a small percentage of the 30,000 to 40,000 Americans who die from firearms each year. In addition to those deaths, an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Americans are injured by firearms annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Many studies have been done on smaller cross-sections, looking at violence among individuals with severe mental illnesses or looking at the rate of mental illness among individuals arrested for violent crimes. But a wider longitudinal study among an ethnically diverse sample of young adults representing the general population, some with mental health issues and some not, found no link between mental health and gun violence.
Misguided policies that might lead to restricting the rights of people with mental illness without meaningfully reducing gun violence can prevent people from seeking needed mental health treatment for fear of stigma, Lu said.
“I think the biggest takeaway is that we should not stigmatize people who have mental health issues,” she said. “We should not assume people with mental health issues are dangers. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence.”
The other side of the coin, showing that access to guns is a strong predictor of gun violence has strong policy implications.
“Increasing access to guns, and the suggestion that this is the best way to protect people from gun violence, is not a solution,” Lu said. “Our finding is consistent with other studies showing that districts with higher gun ownership rates also have higher gun homicide rates.”
“Individuals with more gun access are more likely to perpetuate gun violence.”