When nonexperts start talking about the (so called) association between violence and mental illness

A cocktail for violence

24 APRIL 2014

Campus lifestyles and easy access to guns can create the perfect storm, say Deborah D. Rogers and Howard P. Segal

Deborah D. Rogers is professor of English and Howard P. Segal is professor of history, both at the University of Maine.

University of Texas engineering student Charles Whitman had no problem purchasing guns and ammunition even though several psychiatrists had diagnosed him as mentally ill. He would use the weapons to kill 14 people and wound 32 others in an attack from the university’s tower in August 1966.

Fast-forward to another mass murder committed by a student, this time at Virginia Tech in 2007. Although he had been diagnosed with such severe mental problems that a court had ordered him to undergo psychiatric treatment, Seung-Hui Cho had no difficulty buying semi-automatic guns. Comparing himself to Jesus, he took these weapons to campus, where he killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide.

Although the massacre at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 took place off campus, it is probably no coincidence that the gunman, James Holmes, was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Colorado. Even though he had admitted his fantasies about mass murder to a psychiatrist, he was able to buy semi-automatic rifles at sporting goods stores and to purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition online.

His lawyers acknowledged that he was “in the throes of a psychotic episode” during the bloodbath.

Less spectacular deadly shootings are increasingly common on US campuses. But perhaps we should not be surprised. The age of students, the campus lifestyle and easy access to guns all come together to create the perfect storm.

The age of onset of some severe psychiatric conditions is adolescence and early adulthood – the years typically spent at college. This is confirmed by the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), the authoritative source for psychiatric diagnoses in the US. According to theDSM-5, especially for males, the psychotic features of schizophrenia start emerging in the late teens. The peak age of onset of initial full-blown psychotic episodes, which may include hallucinations, delusions, incoherence and chaotic behaviour, is the early to mid-twenties.

Bipolar disorder also typically emerges between the mid-teens and mid-twenties. Not the ideal time for those who are most vulnerable to leave the support of their family, friends and community to go to college.

University life may be especially conducive to mental illness since heavy drinking, partying, drugs, promiscuity and sleep deprivation are common. The turbulent behaviour of some students may be symptomatic of severe psychiatric disorders. Yet it is accepted – if not expected and encouraged – in permissive academic culture. In the “real world” and in the workplace, this conduct would be more readily recognised for what it is.

Pressure to do well academically and to fit in socially may also “trigger” mental illness. And “trigger” is surely the word, given Americans’ easy access to guns. Supported by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects the right of individuals “to keep and bear arms”, the gun culture contributes to the body count. Countries with restrictive access to guns see fewer incidents of campus violence.

Of course, universities are not the only American settings conducive to mass shootings. So many post office workers have killed colleagues that “going postal” is a slang term for flipping out. Perhaps we should coin another phrase for US campuses: “going academic”.


This is an absolute disgrace. THE, shame on you, for publishing such utter shite. There is no basis for this link.


There is a very small association between severe mental illness and violence, but it is explained by co-morbid substance abuse. Those with severe mental illness who do not abuse drugs are no more likely than those without mental illness to commit violence.


This is an illusory correlation.


It is also based on selective attention. School shootings are not a new thing, despite what the media say. But, these days, when the death rate is high, or were mental illness is assumed, the media go to town on reporting. This is found in other stories of violence were the suspect has a mental illness. The media are more likely to report stories of violence were the suspect is mental ill than stories about suspects without mental illness. This produces a bias in the general population’s mind that there is an association. The evidence says otherwise.


Articles like this perpetuate a myth about violence and mental illness being causally related. They most definitely are not. There is a tiny correlation which is explained by substance abuse. I suppose we should expect this kind of crap from two people who have no training in understanding these issues. Here’s a myth back at you: English and History graduates are destined to work in McDonalds. Discuss.


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