While media coverage of gun violence often leaves us with the perception of close link between violence and mental illness, extensive research tells us that many other factors are associated with a greater risk of gun violence. Most people with mental illness are not violent, and most violent acts are committed by people without mental illness.
New research adds to the wealth of evidence that mental illness is not a risk for gun violence. Research published in June in Psychiatric Services in Advance found that prior violence, substance abuse, and early trauma are more likely to contribute to future violence than mental illness. The study authors conclude that public safety will not be improved by policies “shaped by highly publicized but infrequent instances of gun violence toward strangers.”
A 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine concludes that "… the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population."
People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence—people with serious mental illness are more than 10 times more likely to be
victims of violence than the general public.
And while mental illness is not a major risk factor for gun violence, mental illness is a significant risk factor for suicide. Some 39,000 people die by suicide in the United States each year—more than 50 percent by firearm (56 percent of men and 31 percent of women), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the major risk factors for suicide are a prior suicide attempt, substance misuse, mood disorders (depression or bipolar disorder), and access to lethal means. However, research has also identified key protective factors—factors that make it less likely that a person will attempt or die by suicide. Protective factors include effective mental health care and connection to family, friends and community.
By Deborah Cohen, senior writer, American Psychiatric Association