School Shootings and Mental Illness: A Moral Panic
Richardson, Kristin Lynn
MetadataShow full item record
This research uses moral panic theory to investigate the ways in which print media coverage influences the association of mental illness with acts of mass violence in schools. I explore the relationship between the rhetoric of moral entrepreneurs (such as victims' friends and family members, law enforcement agencies, criminal justice and mental health professionals, gun rights activists, mayors, members of Congress, and presidents), the construction of a moral panic, and the identification of a folk devil (a person or population deemed responsible for the evils of a society; to be feared and controlled in order to minimize threat). Perpetrators of school shootings are often discussed in terms of their consumption of violent media (such as movies, music, and video games), their access to firearms, their social standing among their peers (socially isolated, ostracized, or bullied at school), and their mental health status. I hypothesize that mental illness has become a common frame in which school shooters are discussed by the media, despite the fact that mentally ill persons are less likely than non-disordered individuals to commit acts of violence. Therefore, this characterization of the mentally ill as violent and dangerous is disproportionate to the actual level of threat. I conduct a quantitative frame analysis of print newspaper articles published in the New York Times and one local newspaper during the month following each mass school shooting between 1991 and 2015, coding for the type of moral entrepreneur (grassroots, interest-group, or elite), the folk devil identified (violent media, firearms, social alienation, and/or mental illness), and whether the folk devil was being affirmed or denied. Results reveal that guns are affirmed as the folk devil more often than mental illness, but are also denied most often; whereas mental illness is affirmed nearly as often as guns, and is less frequently denied as the folk devil — leading to the conclusion that mental illness is the most frequently accepted folk devil associated with school shootings. This serves as a cautionary warning against the conflation of mental illness with mass shootings, because it intensifies the stigma attached to mental illness — a known deterrent to seeking treatment.
- Doctoral Dissertations