By Suzanne Smolkin, Vice President, Behavioral Health

In trying to make sense of the recent tragedies in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada, many people make assumptions about mental illness and those struggling with mental illness.

In particular, beliefs that people with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable abound. The American Journal of Public Health reports that after a mass shooting, people tend to believe mental illness is the reason for these violent acts and that most people with mental illness are violent.

The beliefs that most mass shootings are committed by someone diagnosed with a mental illness and that most people with a mental illness are violent are both inaccurate. In the U.S. alone, almost 50 million people suffer from a mental illness1. Yet the rate of violence among those individuals is minimal. In fact, only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious illness, as reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than five percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with a mental illness.

Not only are the beliefs that most of these tragedies are perpetrated by someone with a mental illness, and that most people with mental illness are violent, inaccurate, but they can cause significant harm by contributing to the stigma and discrimination already surrounding mental illness and those who suffer with mental illness. In turn, this stigma and often overt discrimination serves to deter many people who could benefit from mental health treatment from seeking that treatment. Of the millions of people worldwide who suffer from mental health conditions, the vast majority do not receive any form of care, and stigma is a major factor contributing to that unmet need.

It is critical that in our efforts to understand these horrific acts we avoid mistakenly placing blame on a group that already suffers significant stigmatization and discrimination. There is still much work to be done, but education, support, tolerance and understanding can help us pave the way.

1 Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from

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