What Data Exists for the Link Between Mental Health and Mass Shootings?

With four mass shootings in the United States in just the past 60 days, this has been a topic that is on my mind. As a personal project, I’ve been compiling data and trying to crunch the numbers and understand the validity of the numbers themselves. The data set I have been analyzing is from Mother Jones. I want to be able to look at the details of each shooting and try to form an opinion from a blank slate (well, as blank as I can get).

I chose this set because it really is a set. It has a lot of variables and often explanations for some of the points. I have also chosen this because it is the first thing that pops up when I Google “mass shootings data.”

Now don’t jump the gun and attack my source. I have looked through the set and there are issues with it, and I’ll talks about some of those later. I chose it specifically because it was the first thing to pop up. I am a little less concerned about finding the absolute truth of the matter and more concerned about looking at the data that is being presented to the public, because that is where they are forming their opinions. So in order to be ‘on the same page’ as everyone else, I thought this would be a good way to go.

Today, I want to look at just some percent comparisons when I looked down the column “Prior signs of mental health issues.”

This set includes all of the 95 mass shootings from 8/20/1982 to 11/5/2017 in the United States. (Again, this is already a problem. According to Politifact, depending on how you define mass shootings, the number of shootings could be much much higher than the number in the set I’m looking at).

53% (50/95) of the shootings listed in the set marked “yes” in the mental health category.

This number alone looks pretty definitive. More than half is not something to discount. Until, of course, you look closer at those numbers. the “Prior signs of mental health issues” comes with a companion “Summary” column explaining why the certain mark was given. Now this is where it gets less definitive.

26% (13/50) of those marked “yes” had a history of violence listed.

Only about a quarter of the “mentally ill” shooters had a history of physical or verbal abuse toward others or a history of suicidal thoughts or actions.  About a sixth of those included only showed a history of depression as their mental illness. Personally, I believe that a history of violence, whether it was due to mental illness or not, is a factor that should be heavily considered.

12% (6/50) of those marked “yes” only listed depression as a reason.

I do not believe that depression means that people are likely to be violent. On top of that, most of the people that had depression listed were vague in the description. It was often unclear if they were depressed at the time of the shooting or had been listed there just because it was a problem they had faced in the past. A few that stood out were “His cousin said he was depressed and “going through a lot of things”,” and “Neighbors said he suffered from depression and had a drinking problem.”  Although the cited sources were reputable sites like USA Today and CBS News, respectively, I wound’t necessarily call someone mentally ill because of what their cousin or neighbors said.

25% (24/95) of shooters were labeled “unclear” in the mentally ill column.

This can be a problem. Depending on your view point, it would be very easy to put all of these shooters in to the ‘ill’ or ‘not ill’ bins. Of those that were listed as unclear, 14 did not have any explanation as to why they were marked that way, which I assume means there isn’t enough evidence about the shooter to label them one way or another, so they just omitted the Summary section. That is almost 60% of the unclear shooters. If someone were to be arguing for or against the contribution of mental illness, that 60% makes a big difference.

34% (32/95) of the instances only sited one article, or multiple articles from the same website.

This is also a huge problem. Although all of the websites cited (and one book, for the Columbine shooting) were legitimate and reputable news sources, this data is often not cumulative from multiple sources. Also, the data only comes from the news. Some of the information (like patients’ records) may not be public information, but it would be better if there was more pieces to the puzzle. I don’t say this to discount the news vendors used, they have probably done a good job summarizing information that may not be easily accessible to the public. However, it is still just a news article. We cannot slap a mentally ill label on someone because of one quote from one news source. It may be legitimate, but there is too large of a chance that it may not be, which can be damaging to the shooter, the shooters, families, other mentally ill persons, and perpetuate the stereotype of mentally ill shooters.

In conclusion…

We should not whole heartedly trust this data set, however, we should use it as a basis and improve upon it. The spread sheet that Mother Jones is using is a Google spread sheet, meaning it’s open source (to an extent) and will update in real time. And hopefully it does get more work. Anyone researching mass shootings and mental health, like myself, will likely stumble across this source and use it to build or further their opinion. Unfortunately, while it seems really fantastic, the data needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

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