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Expert John Monahan, Ph.D., talks to mental illness myth, not causing violence

May 24, 2014 -UC Santa Barbara student Eldar Erlich, 20, lights candles at a memorial after a 22-year-old man sprayed bullets from his car, killing seven.
May 24, 2014 -UC Santa Barbara student Eldar Erlich, 20, lights candles at a memorial after a 22-year-old man sprayed bullets from his car, killing seven.
Photo by Spencer Weiner/Getty Images

The country once again recoiled in shock after a 22-year-old man got into his car and sprayed bullets in the Southern California college town of Isla Vista, killing six victims. The shooter himself was also killed. Later, evidence revealed the murders were premeditated. He allegedly targeted a sorority at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Misogyny appears to have been the primary motive of this atrocity. Misogyny is a dislike of, contempt for or ingrained prejudice against women.

According to the Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Peter Finn in their May 24, 2014 article, titled, “Shooter kills at least six people in rampage near UC Santa Barbara,"

“Police said they were examining a video posted on YouTube in which a man, sitting in a car, said he had planned an attack in Isla Vista because he was sexually frustrated and had been snubbed by women. The young man, who said he was 22, described himself as a virgin and said he planned an act of retribution because women had not found him attractive.”

Yet, mainstream news coverage soon began to explore whether or not the shooter had been diagnosed with a mental illness. What is the rationale behind going down this road? Simple. Mental illness is perceived to be the major source of the current extreme violence in our culture.

On October 11, 2013, Indiana University Bloomington celebrated the 125th anniversary of its distinguished Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences with a day of festivities. The agenda included a speech by IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences alumnus and one of the nation’s experts on the connection between mental illness and the risk of violence, John Monahan (Ph.D., ’72). At the University of Virginia today, Monahan holds the John S. Shannon Distinguished Professorship in Law and is a professor of psychology and psychiatric medicine. Of note, he holds the distinction of being the first non-attorney psychologist to hold a full-time position in an American law school.

At the 125th anniversary event, Monahan talked to the myth that perpetuates the belief that mental illness is a major source of violence in our culture. Said Monahan in Oct. 2013 in Bloomington, IN,

“According to the best research estimates, approximately 4 percent of the violence in American society is attributable to people with serious mental illness. That means if we could somehow cure all mental illness overnight, we would be left in the morning with a rate of violence that is 96 percent of what it is now.”

Role of substance abuse as a source of violence

As reported by Indiana University Bloomington in January 2014,

“Drawing on data from two studies, Monahan has shown that the relationship between substance abuse and violence was two to three times as strong as the relationship between mental illness and violence.”

Monahan went on to describe that one study he directed found that patients discharged from short-term psychiatric facilities who avoided substance abuse were no more likely to commit violence than the general public. However, discharged patients who did succumb to substance abuse were twice as likely to commit violence as were members of the general public who abuse substances.

The toxicology report allegedly showed the perpetrator of the shootings in Santa Barbara in May had trace amounts of Xanax in his body. It is not conclusive whether or not the young man was addicted to Xanax, however given the research of John Monahan, this possibility is not unrealistic.

As reported in the Daily Mail online on June 4, 2014,

“Mass killer Elliot Rodger may have been dependent on the anti-anxiety drug Xanax which made him 'isolated and anxious' before his murder spree, it has been claimed.”

“His family's spokesman previously said Rodger, who stabbed three students and shot another three dead before killing himself, was believed to have been taking the medication for around six months.”

Advocating for increased access and resources for psycho-therapeutic treatment services

Monahan also said in October 2013, “In addition to reducing violence, treatment generates monetary advantages because it is less expensive than hospitalization.”

In summary, this article seeks to encourage readers to raise their awareness that the popular notion suggesting the major source of the violence in the U.S. today is mental illness is not true. Further, you can advocate in your own community for greater attention to young people, in particular, who might be struggling with substance use issues and the trajectory this can take if the individual also grapples with misogyny or a prejudice against women.