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Slate.com
updated 1/10/2011 11:24:41 AM ET 2011-01-10T16:24:41

Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from "paranoid schizophrenia."

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don't expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

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Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. Rather than looking at individual cases, or even single studies, Fazel's team analyzed all the scientific findings they could find. As a result, they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.

A 2009 analysisof nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similaranalyseson bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it's likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

Related from NBC Open Channel: Few assassins fit the 'profile.' Most had no mental health treatment.

Of course, like the rest of the population, some people with mental illness do become violent, and some may be riskier when they're experiencing delusions and hallucinations. But these infrequent cases do not make "schizophrenia" or "bipolar" a helpful general-purpose explanation for criminal behavior. If that doesn't make sense to you, here's an analogy: Soccer hooligans are much more likely to be violent when they attend a match, but if you tell me that your friend has gone to a soccer match, I'll know nothing about how violent a person he is. Similarly, if you tell me your friend punched someone, the fact that he goes to soccer matches tells me nothing about what caused the confrontation. This puts recent speculation about the Arizona suspect in a distinctly different light: If you found evidence on the Web that Jared Lee Loughner or some other suspected killer was obsessed with soccer or football or hockey and suggested it might be an explanation for his crime, you'd be laughed at. But do the same with "schizophrenia" and people nod in solemn agreement. This is despite the fact that your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent studyof four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statisticsshow you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

The fact that mental illness is so often used to explain violent acts despite the evidence to the contrary almost certainly flows from how such cases are handled in the media. Numerous studiesshow that crimes by people with psychiatric problems are over-reported, usually with gross inaccuracies that give a false impression of risk. With this constant misrepresentation, it's not surprising that the public sees mental illness as an easy explanation for heartbreaking events. We haven't yet learned all the details of the tragic shooting in Arizona, but I suspect mental illness will be falsely accused many times over.

© 2013 Slate.com

Video: Experts: Suspect showed signs of schizophrenia

Photos: Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona

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  1. A hearse carrying the remains of U.S. District Judge John Roll arrives at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church before his funeral on in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Jan. 14. Roll was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting that left six dead and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mary Kool holds a single red rose outside the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral of U.S. District Judge John Roll was to take place. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mourners arrive at the funeral service of Judge Roll. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A flag recovered from ground zero is raised during funeral service for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson, on Thursday, Jan. 13. Green was the youngest victim of the shooting rampage. Green was born on Sept. 11, 2001. (Mamta Popat / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Left to right, Roxanna and John Green, mother and father of Christina Taylor Green, and their son Dallas Green, arrive at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for her funeral in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 2,000 mourners were in attendance at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green on Thursday in Tucson. (Mamta Popat  / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People dressed as angels line the street leading to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral for Christina Taylor Green was to take place in Tucson on Thursday. Hundreds, dressed in white, lined the streets for more than a quarter mile of the funeral procession. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. John Green kisses his son Dallas on the head as the family follows the casket of Christina Taylor Green at her funeral mass in Tucson, on Thursday. At left is Christina's mother Roxanna and at right is Camden Grant, Christina's godmother's son. (Rick Wilking / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A young mourner carries flowers and a teddy bear to the funeral of Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cindy and John McCain listen during the funeral service for shooting victim Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Greg Bryan / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A woman holds the service program from the funeral for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green outside St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson on Thursday. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center during the memorial service for victims of the shootings in Tucson. Obama told the crowd on Wednesday, Jan. 12, that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since being shot in the head during the attack on Jan. 8. Six people were killed and 13 wounded by the lone gunman. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Daniel Hernandez , the 20-year-old intern credited with likely saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hugs her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama applauds. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. First lady Michelle Obama holds the hand of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as they listen to President Barack Obama speak. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. People sing the national anthem during the memorial service on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the start of the memorial event. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. People line up at the University of Arizona campus for the memorial service. (David Becker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Barb Tuttle is overcome with emotion at a makeshift memorial outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 12 in Tucson. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Women waiting in line for the memorial service look at the campus paper at the University of Arizona. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, holds his wife's hand in the congresswoman's hospital room at University Medical Center on Jan. 9. (Offiice Of Gabrielle Giffords / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ron Barber, 65, district director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is visited by Giffords aide Daniel Hernandez in his hospital room on Jan. 9. Hernandez rushed to Gifford's aid after she was shot. Hernandez said that while he held the wounded Giffords, he asked another bystander to put pressure on Barber's wounds. He also asked Barber for his wife's phone number and then shouted it out to someone so that Barber's wife, Nancy, could be informed of the shooting. (Gabrielle Giffords' Office / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observe a moment of silence with White House staff members on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Jan. 10. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Congressional staff observe a moment of silence to honor victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Rachel Cooper-Blackmore, 9, adds a note to a memorial at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, on Jan. 10. Christina Taylor Green, 9, was killed during the Tucson attack. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rachel Crabb, 5, holds hands with teachers, parents and other students during a moment of silence for her slain schoolmate, Christina Taylor Green, at Mesa Verde Elementary School on Jan. 9. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Candles are lit on Sunday at a makeshift memorial outside University Medical Center in Tuscon, Ariz., for those killed or wounded during the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords . (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ellie Steve, 6, from left, Lucia Reeves, 6, and Zoe Reeves, 18, gather for a candlelight vigil outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Six balloons representing the six people killed in Saturday's shooting spree, as part of a prayer vigil.Rep. Gabrielle Giffords battled for her life on Sunday after an assailant shot her in the head and killed six others in a rampage that has launched a debate about extreme political rhetoric in America. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People console each other at a makeshift memorial located outside the University Medical Center on Jan. 9 in Tucson, Ariz. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. The American flag flies at half-staff on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 9. In a brief statement Sunday morning, House Speaker John Boehner said flags on the House side of the Capitol in Washington will be flown at half-staff to honor the slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman, of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Thirty-year-old Zimmerman was among six killed Saturday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. The congregation prays for the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tuscon, at the Pantano Christian Church in East Tucson, Jan. 9. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Monty Edmonds, 36, left, of Tucson; Maggie Kipling, 34, of Tucson; Leigh Harris, 50, of Phoenix; Bella Furr, 21, of Tucson; and Sarah Herrmann, 22, of Tucson participate in a vigil at University Medical Center for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during an event in front of a Safeway grocery store Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Laura Segall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Emergency personnel use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson on Saturday. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Ernie Freuler fights back tears as Ray Lilley takes photos of the scene outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store, Saturday, Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A law enforcement officer stands outside the home of Jared L. Loughner, identified by federal officials as the suspect arrested in connection with the shooting of U.S Representative Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 8. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. People gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting in Arizona at the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Saturday Jan. 8. (Jose Luis Magana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Vera Rapcsak and others hold signs outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday after she was shot while meeting constituents. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Emergency personnel attend to a shooting victim outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz. on Saturday, Jan. 8, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot as the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. Rep. Giffords, 40, a Democrat, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. The gunman shot Giffords in the head, seriously wounding her, and killed six other people in a shooting rampage at a public meeting in Tucson on Saturday. Giffords was airlifted to a hospital in Tucson where she underwent surgery. One of the doctors who treated her said he was optimistic about her recovery. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A woman places flowers by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday after she was shot in Tucson by a gunman who opened fire, killing six people, including a U.S. district judge, John M. Roll. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. In this photo provided by The White House, President Barack Obama talks with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer about the shooting. (Pete Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Emergency personnel at the scene where Giffords and others were shot outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson on Saturday. (Matt York / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Law enforcement personnel work the crime scene on Saturday. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A medical helicopter evacuates victims from the shooting scene. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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