APA: Blaming mental illness for gun violence is 'simplistic, inaccurate'

The organization argues that there is no evidence for this claim.

Photo by Rux Centea on Unsplash
  • Two statements from APA officials make it clear that they don't see any substantial link between mental illness and gun violence.
  • Decades of studies show that there is no conclusive evidence to this knee jerk rhetoric.
  • Officials reiterate the argument that the easy access to guns is to blame.

In the wake of the latest mass shootings throughout the United States, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has pushed back against politicians linking mental illness to the issue. The country's largest organization of psychiatrists released a number of statements condemning what they considered a faulty line of thinking.

The APA believes that people with mental illness are at risk for greater stigmatization because of this kind of rhetoric. Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., the CEO of the APA, released a statement outlining his thoughts on the matter. In it, he wrote:

"Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available."

Countless studies have found that there is no conclusive evidence that marks the mentally ill with having a greater predisposition for gun violence.

"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."

The APA believes that it's our access to guns that foster these calamities.

Access to guns

Antonio Basco, whose wife Margie Reckard was one of 22 persons killed in the recent El Paso mass shooting, lays flowers in her honor.

Photo credit: Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images

It's a common refrain from gun advocates after a terrible tragedy. That guns aren't the problem, the mentally deranged are. A recent study from the University of Texas Medical Branch found that gun access, not mental health leads to gun violence. The researchers write:

"Americans own nearly half of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns in the world. Access to this final, fatal tool means more deaths that occur more quickly, whether in a mass shooting or in someone's own home."

The aforementioned study looked into three potential links to gun violence: gun access and ownership, mental illness, and personality traits. The only thing that conclusively predicted gun violence was access. The researchers added:

"Counter to public beliefs, the majority of mental health symptoms examined were not related to gun violence. Instead, access to firearms was the primary culprit."

Again, Evans echoed this in his APA statement. Psychological scientists have repeatedly found that the majority of people will mental illness are not violent. Currently, there's no singular way to predict whether or not someone will engage in gun violence either.

Mental illness myth 

The main driving psychological driving force behind mass shooters is a bit confused. Liza H. Gold and Robert I. Simon's book Gun Violence and Mental Illness found that less than 5 percent of mass shootings have been connected to someone with a psychiatric disorder, or one that could be diagnosed.

Yet, to the psychiatric layperson (especially pundits and politicians) — the presumption to commit a heinous crime such as a mass shooting, seems like just the thing an insane person would do. No matter the categorization from the APA, or the DSM-5 keepers — common sense dictates that there is something seriously wrong with these people.

The psychological profile for mass shooters is usually a young angry and isolated male. Regardless of their ill-fated crusades, social woes, color or creed, they are all intellectually stunted idealogues. Radicalized by their sources of hate, ignorance and bigotry — the unholy three — and unfettered access to guns leads us to this ceaseless problem.

Yet, psychiatrists point out, again, that other regions of the world have the same exceptionally high amount of mental disorders, such as Western Europe. However, there is not the same high number of mass shootings. The care for our mentally ill and other ideas being floated around — among them, the dearth of our open mental institutions — are a related but separate problem entirely.

APA President Rosie Phillips Davis, Ph.D., said equally as much:

"The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting."

Currently, the best in class have a plan to lessen the frequency of mass shootings. Evans writes:

"Based on the psychological science, we know some of the steps we need to take. We need to limit civilians' access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. We need to institute universal background checks. And we should institute red flag laws that remove guns from people who are at high risk of committing violent acts."

The APA mentions that President Trump has called on the nation to "do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs." Research, that they think they can eventually do. Trump has also put forth the idea that he wants social media companies to develop A.I. that could flag potential mass shooters before they strike — something right out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Evans ends his statement with a true call to arms, to get past the rhetoric once and for all and create real solutions.

"The president clearly said that it is time to stop the hateful rhetoric that is infecting the public discourse. We ask that he use his powerful position to model that behavior. And we ask that the federal government support the research needed to better understand the causes of bigotry and hate, and their association to violence, so that we may devise evidence-based solutions."

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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