In the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States, the public and media discourse tends to be centered around the mental health of the perpetrator. The assumption that mental health is a certain predictor of violence, especially gun violence, has not only permeated the public rhetoric but also found a reflection in gun control policies, with mental health background checks being emphasized in recent and prospective federal reforms. At the same time, there is no scientific evidence that would confirm the link between one’s mental health and future criminal behavior: on the opposite, the existence of such a link generally tends to be disproved (Peterson, Skeem, Kennealy, Bray & Zvonkovic, 2014).
The significance of the problem of public misrepresentation of the mentally ill is twofold. First, the focus on mental health prevents policy-makers from identifying and addressing the real causes of gun and mass violence. Second, the portrayal of the mentally ill as inherently dangerous individuals not only perpetuates the existing stigmatization against this group but also obscures the problem of victimization of the mentally ill people (Teplin, McClelland, Abram & Weiner, 2005).
Such an understanding of the research problem is grounded in the social constructionist approach to criminology. The theory of social constructionism examines the connection and interaction between the objective phenomena and their collective perception, arguing that humans, in an attempt to rationalize the world around them, create social constructions, or social models, to explain their experiences. However, since the human mind utilizes different heuristic mechanisms and is also subject to biases, such constructions tend to present a skewed perception of reality. In the present case, one can argue that the widespread misrepresentation of the mentally ill constitutes a case of moral panic, a particular application of the social construction theory in sociology and criminology. A moral panic is a social event whereby a large number of individuals believe that another group of people threatens the well-being of their community or society (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009).
Essentially, the proposed research lies at the interception of criminology and social and political studies, as well as criminology and media studies. Since the term’s appearance in the early 1970s, moral panic developed from an ambiguous and undefined concept to a fully formed sociological framework. The researchers have not only identified the main characteristics that define a moral panic but have also proposed an agent-centered model that analyzes the origins and goals of moral panics (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009).
There are two primary assumptions underlying the proposed research, from which two research hypotheses can be formulated. The first hypothesis is that public representation of the mentally ill satisfies all the criteria to be regarded as a moral panic. The second hypothesis is that this instance of moral panic has grassroots beginnings, meaning that it is a result of society’s displaced anxiety.
The intended proposal is a mixed-method comparative study that examines secondary data to analyze the media discourse around the mentally ill’s involvement in gun violence and the actual crime statistics on this group. The primary purpose of this research is to demonstrate the inadequacy of a mental health-centered approach to addressing gun and mass violence, as well as to highlight the need for public education in the sphere of mental health to reduce the stigmatization of the mentally ill.
Mental health, as a potential predictor of future criminal behavior, has always received significant attention from criminology scholars (Peay, 2012; Prins, 2015). However, two primary approaches dominated the field. A significant body of literature is dedicated to exploring the patterns and causes of the victimization of mentally ill people as vulnerable members of society (Peay, 2012). The second part of the existing literature is largely centered around the examination of the deficiencies and flaws of the current criminal justice system, and the inadequate treatment and processing of the mentally ill within it (Prins, 2015).
However, with the increasingly frequent occurrences of mass shootings in the United States, as well as the repeated mentions of the perpetrators’ mental health status and history, the criminological field has witnessed a significant shift in the research paradigm. The researchers increasingly focus on the connection between mental health and violence, particularly gun and mass violence, in an attempt to understand whether there is, indeed, a cause for concern (McGinty, Webster & Barry, 2013; Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). They also explore how the perceptions of the mentally ill’s violence affect policy-making in the sphere of gun control (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). These studies have documented that the aftermath of mass shootings is the time when negative public attitudes toward the mentally ill are at their lowest (McGinty et al., 2013).
Even though there is currently no academic literature that examines these public attitudes within the sociological framework of moral panics, there is a clear understanding that the representation of the mentally ill, especially in the wake of mass shootings, is significantly skewed (McGinty et al., 2013; Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). McGinty et al. (2013) essentially use the moral panic vocabulary when they discuss the findings of their research, saying that the words “mentally ill” have transformed into a sign of violent threat in the public discourse.
It thus seems appropriate to employ the concept of moral panics to understand the prevailing public attitudes toward the mentally ill in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States. The term “moral panic” refers to the process of demonization of one social group by the members of another. The term was popularized in the 1970s and was then frequently cited as an explanation for the failing policy of the War on Drugs (Cohen, 2011). The concept has developed from a broad and vaguely defined term into a sociological framework that is applied in criminological, political, and media studies (Cohen, 2011; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009; Maneri, 2013). Moreover, given the scope and nature of the moral panic phenomenon, the scholars specifically distinguish it from a related phenomenon of moral hypes (Maneri, 2013).
For the purposes of the present research, the framework developed by Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) offers the most insights into the problem. The two researchers have developed a set of characteristics that define a moral panic, and these features can be operationalized so as to determine whether a particular event or series of events fit the criteria to be regarded as a case of moral panic. Moreover, Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) also offer three agent-centered models of moral panic occurrence which have important practical implications for the objectives of the present study. Given the current developments and directions in mental health research, the proposed study is intended to bridge the gap between empirical evidence and conceptual frameworks in the field by applying the moral panic model to the problem of misrepresentation of the mentally ill.
Cohen, S. (2011). Whose side were we on? The undeclared politics of moral panic theory. Crime, Media, Culture, 7(3), 237-243.
Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (2009). Moral panics: The social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
Maneri, M. (2013). From media hypes to moral panics: Theoretical and methodological tools. In J. Petley, C. Critcher, J. Hughes & A. Rohloff (Eds.), Moral panics in the contemporary world (pp. 171-192). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
McGinty, E.E., Webster, D.W., & Barry, C.L. (2013). Effects of news media messages about mass shootings on attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness and public support for gun control policies. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170(5), 494-501.
Metzl, J. M., & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental illness, mass shootings, and the politics of American firearms. American Journal of Public Health, 105(2), 240-249.
Peay, J. (2012). Mentally disordered offenders, mental health and crime. In M. Maguire, R. Morgan & R. Reiner (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Criminology (pp. 496-528). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, J.K., Skeem, J., Kennealy, P., Bray, B., & Zvonkovic, A. (2014). How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? Law and Human Behavior, 38(5), 439-449.
Prins, H. (2015). Offenders, deviants or patients? An introduction to clinical criminology (5th ed.). London, UK: Routledge.
Teplin, L. A., McClelland, G. M., Abram, K. M., & Weiner, D. A. (2005). Crime victimization in adults with severe mental illness: Comparison with the National Crime Victimization Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(8), 911-921.