It was and continues to be an agonizing week in the news, especially if you are from the Tacoma or the Seattle area. Four police officers were slain. The pain for their families and communities is unbearable. The crime is incomprehensible – yet there is an understandable need to try to understand why this senseless violence occurred.
Reporters are trying to uncover all possible information about Maurice Clemmons to shed any light on his heinous act. One line of investigation concerns Clemmons’ mental health, with the subtext that perhaps mental illness or a mental “tailspin” – as reported by Clemmons’ uncle – are responsible. Journalists and the public should be careful about such suggestions.
Beyond reports from family members, the evidence is thin that Clemmons had a long-term mental illness. But Clemmons’ past reported symptoms sound like psychosis with threat-control override characteristics, in which a person fears personal harm and feels he or she is being threatened by others. Such symptoms are believed to play a contributing role in a small number of violent acts. So there will continue to be speculation about a possible role for mental illness in this tragedy and anger that perhaps there was more the “safety net” might have done to prevent it.
It is important to remember that violent acts typically have multiple causes and that serious mental illnesses alone, even when there are symptoms of psychosis involved, do not predict violence.
According to a respected study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, the most important predictors of violence include: historical (past violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse, parental arrest record), clinical (substance abuse, perceived threats), demographic (age, sex, income) and contextual (recent divorce, unemployment, victimization) factors.
Mental illnesses by themselves do not make this list of predictors of violence. That is because it is simplistic and inaccurate to say that mental illnesses are a cause of violence. Instead, mental illnesses are relevant to the risk of violence because they are embedded in more important individual and situational factors.
Maurice Clemmons had many of these well-known risk factors for violence. We should be wary of attributing his crimes to mental illness. Why? Erroneous conclusions that mental illnesses cause violent crimes have dire consequences for millions of Americans, including ignorance-based stigma and discrimination. The ignorance is fueled by news stories and headlines that misinform the public by suggesting a direct link between serious mental illnesses and violence.
What are the consequences? Stigma and the related discrimination discourage people from seeking assistance and early treatment. This in turn hampers efforts at preventing mental illness and exacerbates negative consequences, such as incarceration, which can result from actions related to untreated mental illness.
Negative public attitudes also contribute to policymakers’ decisions that hinder prevention and treatment. It’s no coincidence that parity and funding for treatment of mental illnesses has lagged far behind physically obvious illnesses, even though mental illnesses are one of the leading causes of disability in the United States. Limited employment and housing options for people with mental illnesses, due in part to discrimination, limit their possibilities for leading safe, productive lives. Stigmatization also complicates the lives of people with mental illnesses and makes it harder for them to move forward even as treatment improves their symptoms and functioning.
In short, there are a lot of good reasons to be careful about jumping to the conclusion that mental illness played a role in Clemmons’ vile acts, lest we perpetuate a vicious cycle of counter-productive perceptions and policies.
The causes of Clemmons’ crime are probably complex, and investigation of those causes will likely prove to be inconclusive. Nevertheless these story lines will continue to be pursued because of the hope that future tragedies may be prevented. Journalists and the general public need to remember that there most likely is no simple explanation for Clemmons’ violence. We shouldn’t take the easy way out and explain it away as mental illness.
Jennifer Stuber, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, is leading a coalition funded by the Mental Health Transformation Grant from the governor’s office to improve mental health reporting. More information about the coalition can be found at www.mentalhealthreporting.org.