Mental Mass Contrast

It is well established that most mass public shooters (MPS) have mental health problems. The question is whether they are more prone to instability than the public and by how much.

The answer is upwards of nine times as unstable.

Major Take-aways

  • Depending on the subtopic, MPSs are 1.4 to 9.0 times more likely to have mental health problems.
  • Most commonly, they have “thought disorders” – a characteristic of psychotic mental illness – at nine times the rate of the general public.

The Violence Project and Their Book

We have discussed the Violence Project and mental health before. They study MPS due to significant funding (for which we are green with jealously) and unprecedented access to uncommon data. They have produced the most comprehensive database on MPS available. The Gun Facts project will continue to maintain our mass public shooting database because we track important variables that the Violence Project does not.

They have a book out that is a solid distillation of the findings, though we warn the reader that some statements they make are not great analysis. They appear to purposefully distance themselves from conceptual landmines and potential controversy. This does not weaken the value of their book, but it raises BS detectors and doubt about some of their conclusions.

Most notable, their database provides the deepest dive into the backgrounds of shooters, including a rather complex set of information on their mental health or lack thereof. Many more details are provided, such as this handy breakdown of mass public shooter mental issues.

But the authors erred in their prose when, like so many others, they belabored the point that though mental illness is common among mass public shooters, mass public shootings are rare among the total population of people with mental health issues.

To which we say, “So what?” Proper analysis begins with defining the population under study (e.g., mass shooters) and then explores the commonalities. To reframe the discussion away from the study population is to “look down the wrong end of the telescope.” Sure, you’ll see something, but it will be a distorted image that will lead you astray.

This perspective problem leads to the question, “Is mental illness more prevalent in mass shooters than the general public, and if so, by how much?” The Violence Project does address this question, but we decided to make the information a bit more usable.

The Core Data and Public Comparison

What we see is rather stark and frightening.

General Population Mass Public Shooters Multiple
Previous Counseling 9% 1 29% 3.2
Psychiatric Medications 16% 1 23% 1.4
Previous Hospitalization 4% 4 20% 5.0
Thought Disorders 3% 2 27% 9.0
Mood Disorders 10% 3 16% 1.6
Autism 1% 5 6% 6.0
Any Mental Health History 26% 6 59% 2.3
  • 1: Mental Health Treatment Among Adults: United States, 2019; Terlizzi, Zablotsky; CDC – NOTE: 19% had received some form of treatment, but not specifically psychiatric counseling
  • 2: Thought Disorders and the Non‐Psychiatric Provider
  • 3: Any Mood Disorder
  • 4: Hospital Stays Related to Mental Health, 2006overstated
  • 5: Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in a total population sample
  • 6: Statistics related to mental health disorders

The big item is “thought disorders,” which the American Psychological Association defines as “a cognitive disturbance that affects … thought content, including poverty of ideas, neologisms, paralogia, word salad, and delusions. A thought disorder is considered by some to be the most important mark of schizophrenia, but it is also associated with mood disorders, dementia, mania…”

Mass public shooters have thought disorders nine times as frequently as the general public.

Mental health variables in mass homicides and shootingsThe second most exaggerated mental health disorder among mass shooters was being on the autism spectrum, with mass shooters being six times more likely to be autistic than the world at large. As we discovered in one academic survey of literature, being on the spectrum is the single most common mental impairment of mass murders and serial killers.

Most troublesome, from the public policy perspective, is that mass public shooters had previous psychiatric hospitalization rates five times higher than the public in general, but their potential for causing great harm was either [a] not identified while hospitalized, or [b] treated in a blasé way using medications, which mass public shooters swallowed at a slightly higher rate than the rest of us.

What is not known is whether mass public shooters stayed on their meds. A person with thought disorders is likely to be far less reliable than your oddball cousin in taking their medications faithfully. Multiply this danger by the fact that “cold turkey” withdraw from many/most psychotropic medications can produce dangerous states of mania and agitation, along with delusions, hallucinations, and more.

Psychiatric Malpractice

While we are berating the mental health industry, let’s note that mass public shooters were more than three times as likely to have had previous mental health counseling than the masses. An argument has been proffered that people “on the edge” of committing these horrendous crimes are not getting treatment. But with 3X the rate for counseling and 5X the rate for hospitalization, this argument is at best weak if not outright false. Mass shooters are getting treated, but they are also getting released into the wild, possibly without adequate supervision and with drugs that if incorrectly taken may amplify dangers.

Psychiatric Beds and Mass Public ShootingsWhat we have is a failing mental health system.

Since the early 1990s, before the Columbine Massacre (which involved “cold turkey” withdraw from psychotropic medications), the number of psychiatric beds has been cut by about 30%. Instead of prescribing confined treatment, the industry has turned to drugs. This, of course, is not the only contributing factor, but it cannot be ignored, and the psychiatric community should not ignore it either.

This article first appeared on Gun Facts. Please make a donation directly to them at

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