The new Todd Phillips film, “Joker,” has drawn criticism for a number of reasons, including its portrayal of a mentally ill man committing a series of brutal murders with a gun.
In the aftermath of real-life mass shootings, it’s become routine for some political and media figures in the U.S. to point the finger of blame for gun violence at mental illness.
But mental health experts are telling a very different story from the traditional narrative, saying proposals to reduce gun violence by improving mental health services or targeting the mentally ill with gun restrictions are not supported by empirical facts.
With the release of “Joker,” the debate over the role of mental illness in gun violence has been reignited, with some voicing concern that the film reinforces a faulty and stigmatizing narrative about people with mental health issues.
“There are two characters in the film who undergo treatment for mental illness, and each inflicts serious harm to others,” Gabrielle Bruney wrote in a column for Esquire Saturday. “Meanwhile, in real life, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.”
‘Pretty Much Zero’
There is an extensive body of research suggesting the link between mental illness and gun violence is far less pronounced than politicians and media figures have portrayed it to be.
One 2010 study from researchers at Columbia University found the public safety contribution of state laws that restrict access to firearms among the mentally ill is likely to be minimal, as only three to five percent of all violent incidents are linked to serious mental illness and guns are not involved in most cases.
Another 2017 study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Orebro University in Sweden concluded that the risk of violence associated with mental illness is low and that most psychiatric disorders are not related to violence, with the exceptions of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Even then, violent behavior often occurs only in tandem with substance abuse.
“There’s a very small relationship and it primarily resides with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but if you account for substance use and abuse, then the relationship is diminished to pretty much zero,” University of Ottawa Psychology Professor Tracy Vaillancourt told The Globe Post. “We need to debunk this idea because it’s scapegoating the wrong people.”
‘Violence Begets Violence’
According to a meta-analysis by University of California Berkeley Associate Dean of Research Jennifer Skeem, “exceptionalist policies” with a narrow focus on those with mental illness would do little to prevent mass shootings. Policies focused on the general population like universal background checks and red flag laws, however, would go far in preventing individuals with and without mental illness from committing acts of gun violence.
Skeem told The Globe Post people with different mental illnesses differ from each other and that blaming mass violence on the mentally ill contributes to stigmas associated with mental illness.
“Half of us will meet criteria for some mental illness within our lifetimes,” Skeem said. “Ending violence from the mentally ill would still leave 96 percent of violent incidents.”
Echoing Skeem’s suggestion, Vaillancourt said rather than putting undue emphasis on the mentally ill, the focus should be on restricting access to firearms for people with a history of substance abuse, conduct problems, anti-personality disorder and general history of past violence; in particular men.
“A good predictor of who’s going to be violent is somebody who’s had a life-course trajectory of being violent … so violence begets violence,” Vaillancourt said. “We should be thinking about screening early and intervening early … If you want to look at predictors, you’re better at predicting who’s going to commit violence with a gun by looking at their gender than at their mental health profile.”
The Globe Post recently reported on the strong connection between domestic abuse and gun violence in an article which details similar findings to those described by Vaillancourt. A history of domestic abuse often precludes gun violence and more than half of all mass shootings involve some form of domestic violence, according to the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.
Access to Guns
Offering a Canadian perspective on gun violence in the U.S., Vaillancourt pointed out that while prevalence rates of mental disorders are similar between the United States and Canada, the U.S. has much higher rates of gun violence.
“Often what we don’t talk about is access to guns,” Vaillancourt said. “Restrict your access to guns and you will reduce the carnage in your country. There’s no way that is a wrong statement. It may not be a popular statement, but I’ll stand by it.”
This year, the House of Representatives, passed legislation to expand background checks, extend waiting periods for gun purchases, and voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with language that would add new restrictions on gun purchases for domestic abusers.
The new restrictions include expanding restrictions to abusive partners and spouses and would bar those under a restraining order for abusing, stalking, or assaulting domestic partners from purchasing firearms. Thus far, despite promises from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up gun safety legislation, the Senate has yet to take up any of the House-passed gun safety legislation.