Experts Warn against Conflating Mental Illness and Violence

June 7, 2022

In response to recent mass shootings, including that which took place in Uvalde, Texas at Robb Elementary School that claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 other people, communities in New Jersey and nationwide are focusing on the need to protect students.

In New Jersey, steps have already been taken to increase school security, identify students who may pose threats, and ensure that districts provide comprehensive mental health services. Starting this Fall, the state will also begin to award money from a $1 million dollar grant fund to help schools develop depression-screening programs.

Governor Phil Murphy's budget proposal includes plans to invest federal pandemic relief funds into a new school-based mental health effort aimed at helping students struggling with pandemic stress and learning loss; however, a budget has yet to be finalized. Outside of mental health supports, Governor Murphy has pledged to strengthen school security even further, and to work with state lawmakers on a number of legislative initiatives relating to safe weapons storage, additional firearm-use education, and tracking of illegal weapons.

Governor Murphy was quoted on speaking a day after the Uvalde shooting saying, "Congress has failed to lead time and time and time again, so it's up to us to do the job others are too weak to do."

While an alternative focus to gun control is being placed on mental health, Paul Boxer, a psychology professor at Rutgers-Newark, warned on that mental illness should not be confused with violent tendencies.

Boxer was quoted saying, "There is a huge variety of symptoms and conditions under the banner term mental illness. That's why it's dangerous to conflate it [with violence] . . . A kid that feels really sad, or anxious, or stressed out, or has ADHD or PTSD, yes, that kid should absolutely get services and support . . . But that kid should not be looked at and determined to be a risk for violence because they are mentally ill. Absolutely not."

Boxer emphasized his point saying, "In general, mental illness does not cause violence. There are very specific, discrete kinds of symptoms of mental illness that are associated with violence," such as psychotic episodes when people hear voices. "But that's a very, very small sliver of the bigger picture of what constitutes mental illness," Boxer stated.

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