Why we default to ‘explaining away’ violent crime

After a violent crime takes place, especially one that is heavily reported on such as the mass shooting in Plymouth by Jake Davidson, or the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Sarah Everard, the public often enters a state of heightened fear and anxiety.

In this fear it is easy to fall back onto a desire to ‘explain away’ a person’s violent actions. Extreme violence is an unfortunate fact of our society, however, most of us aren’t forced into facing up to this fact in our every day lives. Because of this, we frequently make unsubstantiated conclusions and cognitive leaps to reduce what is likely, complex pathology and motivation into something digestible.

Stephen Benning, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas spoke to Stylist about this human need to identify cause and blame: “Threats that are unexplained and inexplicable generate profound anxiety in us because we wonder when they might happen again and how to protect ourselves from them.”

More often than not, this desire to soothe our anxiety and reach for a fixed reason or motive falls on mental health and or mental illness. This makes a lot of sense because, as discussed in our article on psychosis and stigma, popular media has, for the last sixty years consistently portrayed violent crimes as being enacted by unstable, mentally ill people.

This isn’t to say that some element of mental health, mental illness or disordered personality might not contribute to the pathology of those who commit violent crimes, however the tendency to focus on this as the sole reason behind violent acts, such as mass shootings both in popular media and news media can be exceedingly damaging.

We spoke to Jillian Peterson who heads The Violence Project with her professional partner, James Densley. The Violence Project is the US’s ‘most comprehensive mass shooter database’ as the website states. Peterson and Densley have also authored a book together as a result of the project, The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.

Asking Peterson about society’s tendency to only make allowances for and attribute mental health as a reason for mass shooters who are young, white, straight cisgendered men she said:

“Mass shootings are crimes that are terrifying and irrational, so we look for explanations to help them make sense. Media and politicians often focus on mental illness as an explanation. Mental health histories are common among mass shooters, but so are other factors such as histories of violence and hateful beliefs. Our research shows that mass shooters follow a pattern of traumatic childhoods, reaching a state of crisis, suicidality, radicalization to hate, studying other mass shooters for validation, and access to guns. Mental illness is often a part of the pathway to violence for these perpetrators, but it doesn't fully explain their crime.”

Following on from this we also asked her about what this tendency can mean for the stigmatisation of mental illness, Peterson said:

“The vast majority of people with serious mental illness living in the community are not violent, and people with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime. The data does not support blaming mass shootings exclusively on serious mental illness, doing so risks stigmatizing the millions of people who are affected by serious mental illness each year. It also misses the important role of other explanations and motivating factors.”

To gain another perspective on this stigmatising affect we also spoke to Dr Lucy Foulkes, an honorary lecturer at UCL who specialises in clinical, education and health psychology. Foulkes also recently released a book, Losing Our Minds: What Mental Illness Really Is And What It Isn’t, that explores how the move toward mental health awareness has impacted our cultural understanding of mental illness and when and why we sometimes unnecessarily medicalise human behaviour.

Speaking on the stigma that headlines such as BBC’s ‘Plymouth shooting: Gunman had mental health support in lockdown’ can inadvertently perpetuate, Foulkes said:

“The issue with speculating on the mental health of mass shooters, or searching for evidence of mental health problems in their past, is that you create a false impression that violence and mental health problems are inevitably tied together. If you emphasise the fact that one exceptionally violent person also had mental health problems, you risk sending the message that all people with mental health problems are violent and dangerous. This is simply not the case.”

Again, Foulkes also emphasised that “People with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Focusing excessively on the mental health of violent criminals creates more stigma around mental disorders,” she also made an important additional comment that “it also risks minimising personal responsibility of these individuals, or the social context that led to their crime.”

Understanding timing: what to report and when

Finding a way to resist this urge to ‘explain away’ by falling back on mental health and mental illness will not be simple. Similarly, knowing what is right and necessary to report to the public through media, is not easy. However, one step to reduce this stigma that the association between violent crime and mental illness creates, could be as straightforward as choosing not to immediately focus on a perpetrator’s mental health or mental state at the time of the crime.

A shift away from this and toward the other “motivating factors” as Jillian Peterson said, can allow for more nuanced understanding and discussion around why violent crimes take place.

For the fatal shooting in Plymouth on the 12th of August, these motivating factors include possible radicalisation as a result of partaking in the incel community, preoccupation with guns and from a wider more institutional perspective: gun laws and licensing, especially when considering the information that Davidson had his firearm license removed in December 2020 after an assault allegation, only for it to be given back in July of this year.

If we are to engage with and focus on the mental health and mental state of violent criminals at all, it is hugely important that this is done within the context of the crime and after some time has passed. This is especially important when looking back over the demographics that do and don’t get this kind of treatment in the media.

In 2018, a mass shooter in Florida was portrayed by news media as being 'bullied', similarly mass shooters, James Holmes, Patrick Crusius and Dylann Roof all had their mental health discussed at length in the media immediately following their crimes.

This discussion is not only damaging and stigmatising, and as Dr Lucy Foulkes said, creates “a false impression that violence and mental health problems are inevitably tied together” it is frequently completely or mostly absent in reports on violent crimes committed by People of Colour.

Understanding how and when we attribute mental health, mental illness and mental state as a reason behind violent crime is essential in ensuring that the stigma around mental health is not perpetuated by popular media and news media. As news publications we must pause, think, and report in a way that responsibly handles this stigma, at all times but especially in relation to violent crime.