Events of this week in the Washington Navy Yard, where Aaron Alexis apparently killed 13 people, remind us of the frightening and complex relationship between mental health and violence. Alexis had apparently sought and received treatment for psychotic symptoms, including paranoia and auditory hallucinations, as recently as August. These reports are sure to bring up questions about his culpability for the alleged offenses, especially if it can be shown by his defense team that a profound disorder of thought contributed to his actions.
And yet, the link between mental illness and acts of severe violence is tenuous at best. Here, in a 12 minute talk from our January 2013 symposium on “Empathy: The Development and Disintegration of Human Connection”, CLBB Co-Director Judy Edersheim is clear to point out that the best predictor of increase in homicide rates is not mental health-related but rather social dislocation, income inequality, and the absence of social capital. Most crimes are not committed by the kind of high-profile mass shooters we see, so to conceive of crime as only a product of lack of empathy or of mental illness is a mistake.