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Delving beyond tenuous links between mental illness, mass shootings

A person visits a makeshift memorial on May 19 near the scene of a shooting days earlier at a supermarket in Buffalo.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Blaming illness is a distraction, and promoting stigma is unhealthy

I wanted to commend Deanna Pan and the Globe for her article on the tenuous links between mental illness and mass shootings and other forms of gun violence (“Mental illness not sole factor in mass killings,” Page A1, June 4).

As a psychiatrist, I was ambivalent about political pleas on how “we need to do something about mental health” in response to these horrific acts of violence. On the one hand, yes, our country’s mental health system is fundamentally flawed and cannot currently support the needs of our society. Yet on the other, this scapegoating of mental illness does not do justice to our patients, who are much more likely to die or suffer as victims of violence than they are to perpetrate such acts.


Studies have demonstrated, in the matter of suicide, that restricting access to lethal means, such as firearms and pesticides, and taking other measures, such as securing bridges, has demonstrably reduced attempts and deaths. Continuing to blame mental illness is a convenient distraction from other factors that are likely to be associated with mass shootings, such as access to firearms, toxic masculinity, and Internet radicalization.

Thank you to Pan for acknowledging the incomplete picture of the profile of the mass shooter and underscoring how it stigmatizes mental illness and could lead individuals to hesitate in acknowledging their own conditions or seeking care.

Dr. Simone Obara


Psychiatrists treat patients who deal with these issues without resorting to violence

As psychiatrists with considerable experience dealing with envy, disappointment, rage, and the desire for retaliation in patients who have the capacity to deal with these negative affects without resorting to violence, it was both important and gratifying to read Deanna Pan’s article. She demonstrates statistically the relatively small role that mental illness has played in the life of those young men who have committed mass murders.


Our experience agrees with her description of individuals who feel profoundly distant from success in their lives. They find nothing worthwhile in their present life nor any chance of a better future. They become focused solely on a grandiose act of violence that will capture the public’s attention simply because it is so horrifying that it cannot be ignored (as they feel they have been). In killing schoolchildren, they believe they will instantly become important, with an impact that will live on even if they are killed.

Hatred of the success of others combined with the desire for an apocalyptic exit from life amid the mayhem of murdering schoolchildren is obviously sick behavior, but not all sick or reprehensible behavior can be diagnosed as mental illness. Pan’s article is essential for anyone attempting to understand the role of mental illness in the rising numbers of mass murders we have been witnessing.

Dr. Henry J. Friedman

Dr. Jamie Feldman


Friedman is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Feldman is an adult and child psychiatrist.

Another factor to guard against: the copycat shooter

As a psychiatrist, I commend Deanna Pan’s excellent rebuttal of the notion that mass shootings are due primarily to “mental illness.” As the article rightly notes, many mass shooters are angry young males with a variety of emotional problems and perceived grievances, but very few have clinically verified psychiatric disorders or active psychotic symptoms.

One element of mass shootings Pan does not discuss is the phenomenon of the so-called copycat shooter. The lurid publicity that typically follows a mass shooting, in which the shooter’s supposed motivation is obsessively dissected, is often perceived as the road to glory by other aggrieved young men, who then seek to one-up the previous shooter. In addition to keeping guns out of the hands of these impulsive, vulnerable young people, we also need to avoid glamorizing mass shooters in a way that encourages further carnage.


Dr. Ronald W. Pies


The writer is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.

There ought to be a UN convention on rights of young adults

There’s an explanation about the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and in Uvalde, Texas that I haven’t seen mentioned in the public discussion. Capitalist dynamics seem to have something to do with those shootings. Guns are profitable, but essential human needs — to learn, to have health care, in sum, to grow physically, mentally, even spiritually — tend to be commodified, going to the highest bidder.

Recall the words of the socialist philosopher and social activist Eric Fromm: “Unlived life leads to destruction.” Our youth are just not developing these days, and many become frustrated and eventually act out.

I represented the International Association of Schools of Social Work at the United Nations for more than a decade, and I noticed much talk about the idea of a Convention on the Rights of Young Adults, similar to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Each of those two reported shooters was 18. The time is now to have such a human rights convention or, at least, for the United States to ratify and implement the CRC (to this date, it has not done so). This would then commit governments to eradicate the structural violence and racism, substantive to capitalist dynamics, that play a substantial role in such atrocities.


Joseph Wronka


The writer is a professor in the School of Social Work and Behavioral Sciences at Springfield College.