Mental illness is often unfairly scapegoated following mass shootings in America. But experts say those living with mental illness are rarely violent, and social contagion is the biggest risk factor for gun violence.

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Social contagion plays a larger role in gun violence than many people realize. Getty Images

After the recent pair of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, the collective attention of America’s ire has once again landed squarely on the topic of gun control.

In a predictable turn, gun-rights advocates have speculated that the real cause for these shootings is mental illness and violent video games and movies. Meanwhile, gun-control advocates are pushing for expansive background checks and bans on the sale of certain guns or accessories.

But as the discussion heats up, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a declaration that mental illness should not be in the spotlight after incidents like these.

They say scapegoating mental health issues overlooks research and ignores decades of investigation that points to other causes.

“Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available,” wrote Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, CEO of the American Psychological Association, in the APA statement.

He continued, “The United States is a global outlier when it comes to horrific headlines like the ones that consumed us all weekend. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we are home to 31 percent of all mass shooters globally, according to a CNN analysis. This difference is not explained by the rate of mental illness in the U.S.”

Indeed, America is a country flush with guns. With 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world, the United States accounts for nearly half of all those guns but only 5 percent of the world’s population.

Yet when a mass shooting occurs, a violent weekend in one of America’s cities unravels, or even a military veteran takes their own life with their weapon of choice (an all-too-common occurrence in recent years), some individuals and politicians point to mental health as the culprit.

That, Evans and his colleagues say, is the wrong cause.

“As we psychological scientists have said repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. And there is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will resort to gun violence,” Evans said.

“Based on the research, we know only that a history of violence is the single best predictor of who will commit future violence. And access to more guns, and deadlier guns, means more lives lost,” he said.

What is to blame may be something less tangible than even a history of violence. As it turns out, mass shootings can be contagious.

Indeed, research shows these shootings tend to occur in clusters, and that may all be because of a phenomenon known as social contagion.

Social contagion is “the spread of attitudes, behaviors, or ideas via conformity and imitation,” Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, California told Healthline.

“This is also termed behavior contagion in that certain behaviors are imitated by some, and then continue to spread to others within the group or society,” she said.

Specifically, Dr. Manly said, many mass shooters look to previous ones for inspiration, motivation, and planning.

“The shooters become driven to study previous perpetrators to learn their methods and to obtain validation,” she said. “Given our society’s media-driven focus, mass shooters seek the infamy that will come with their actions — the same notoriety given to prior shooters.”

She added: “These individuals may also be propelled forward by the mass fear that is created through the media coverage. All of this becomes a social contagion that heightens general fear, models horrific behavior for potential mass shooters, and drives the negative cycle.”

Researchers at Arizona State University used data from mass shootings over a two-year span. They plugged the information into programs the same way they would outbreaks of viruses or diseases. What they found was that there is a “contagious” element to mass shootings.

“We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past,” the researchers concluded in their paper, which was published in PLOS ONE.

“We find that state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with the state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings, and mass shootings,” they continued.

Congress stripped funding for gun research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1996. They wrote in the 1997 budget that, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

Today, gun-related research is largely funded by private entities who can use their research dollars to look at other elements of the gun debate, including but not limited to the role of mental health and social influence.

“As social beings who rely on each other for survival, we look to the group to see what behavior is acceptable or appropriate. In part, we adjust our behavior based on repeated exposures and we learn accordingly,” Michelle G. Paul, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Practice, a mental health clinic in connection with the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, told Healthline.

She also pointed out that people “often look to those in positions of power and authority for those clues, creating a top-down contagion effect.”

Paul further explained, “Psychological science also finds that contagion can occur automatically and perhaps with only limited exposure to an activating event amongst people in a more lateral manner.”

“So, for example, if we are exposed to a negative behavior or encounter, this can automatically/unconsciously trigger in our minds associations with other negative concepts and prime our thinking and responding to be similarly negative. Thus, the negative spreads,” she said.

Research shows that people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence, and less likely to be the perpetrators.

Indeed, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that 30 percent of the almost 4,500 people with a mental illness they surveyed had been a victim of violence in the six months prior to their study.

At the same time, 23.9 percent of study participants had committed a violent act.

But of those violent acts, just 2.6 percent were committed in a public place like school or a workplace — 63.5 percent of these violent acts committed by a person with a mental illness took place in residential settings.

“When it comes to violence — and in this case, mass violence such as shootings — it’s so important that we not assume that mental health issues are always the root cause,” Dr. Manly said. “Indeed, the vast majority of those with mental disorders are not violent, and the APA release speaks to this well-documented truth.”

“Those who suffer from mental illness — be it depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other issues — are generally not inclined to harm others,” she added.

In fact, research points to the fact that guns in the hands of people with mental illness are more likely to end in that individual’s death — not the deaths of people around them.

In 2016, firearm suicides accounted for more than half of all U.S. deaths by suicide, according to the American Public Health Association. Plus, states with higher gun ownership rates have higher suicide rates than states with lower gun ownership.

“Access to a firearm, particularly during a time of increased risk for suicide (e.g., divorce, job loss), has been identified as a key factor increasing one’s risk for completing suicide,” the study’s authors wrote.

“Firstly, mental illness, as defined by a formal diagnosis, by itself is not the strongest predictor of future violence. It has some predictive value but not as much predictive value as other things such as alcohol or substance abuse,” Paul said. “So, to put great resources into restricting access to guns for people with mental illness would seem like a misallocation of priorities.”

She also pointed out that predicating whether one person will act violently is very difficult to do and often depends on their circumstances.

“Whether one person with mental illness will behave violently is not the question. The question is under what conditions would this person be more likely to act violently? Our focus should be on intervening to prevent the conditions that would set the stage for violent behavior,” she said.

Stopping social contagion is likely to be a national undertaking, but it will also be necessary for both communities and families to get involved in the lives of people around them in order to foster the very things that could stop social contagion.

These include love, attention, support, and, yes — mental health assistance.

“Mental health is something to address seriously,” Paul said. “And, I mean to define mental health very broadly.”

“We need to invest in mentally healthy communities — communities that invest in reducing the drivers of psychological pain and suffering while increasing drivers of belonging, connection, compassion, and purpose.” she said. “Pain and suffering begets negative and sometimes aggressive behaviors toward self and others.”

She further explained that belonging, connection, and purpose brings about peace, health, resilience, and growth.

“Negative begets negative. Positive begets positive. And we can make a conscious choice here. Which contagion do we prefer to invest in?” she said.

Then there’s the work that must be done at the state and federal level. That, it seems, is an area that’s unlikely to move as politicians come to loggerheads over the best solution, despite the advice of experts like Evans and his colleagues.

“We agree with the president’s call to strengthen background checks. But this falls woefully short of what is needed,” Evans said. “We must take a comprehensive public health approach and provide dedicated federal funding to agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, to better understand the causes, contributing factors, and solutions to gun violence.”

If you need mental health assistance or want advice on helping someone in your life that has expressed violent thoughts or behaviors, reach out to The Anxiety and Depression Association of America or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).