Columbia Mass Murder Database Reveals Mass School Shootings Are Not Caused by Mental Illness

School Zone Crime Scene

Most mass murderers whose crimes occurred in school settings did not have severe psychiatric illnesses, according to a new research study by Columbia University.

Data from Columbia Mass Murder Database reveal psychosis and other serious psychiatric illness absent in the majority of perpetrators.

Researchers examining 82 mass murders that occurred at least partially in academic settings throughout the world found that most mass murderers and mass shooters did not have severe psychiatric illnesses. The work was done by a research team at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI).

“Our findings suggest that mass school shootings are different from other forms of mass murder and that they should be looked at as a distinct phenomenon.” — Ragy R. Girgis, MD

Led by Ragy R. Girgis, MD, the study found that 100% of the mass killings were initiated by males (mean age 28) of whom 66.7% were Caucasian. Firearms were involved in sixty-three percent of the murders. Although severe mental illnesses, such as psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, were not present in the perpetrators of these events, it is notable that almost half of these mass shooters took their own lives at the scene. This led the authors to hypothesize that these perpetrators viewed themselves as engaging in some form of “final act.”

According to the authors, the study is the largest analysis ever conducted on mass school shootings. The research was published online on October 27 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

“Our findings suggest that mass school shootings are different from other forms of mass murder and that they should be looked at as a distinct phenomenon,” said Dr. Girgis, director of the Center of Prevention and Evaluation (COPE), a research clinic at Columbia/NYSPI specializing in the study and treatment of young adults at high risk for schizophrenia and other psychoses. “To prevent future mass school shootings, we need to begin to focus on the cultural and social drivers of these types of events, such as the romanticization of guns and gun violence, rather than on individual predictors.”

To conduct their study, the researchers analyzed data from the Columbia Mass Murder Database (CMMD). This was developed by the COPE team as a resource to gain much-needed insight into the relationship between serious mental illness and mass shootings. Creating the CMMD involved an extensive review of 14,785 murders publicly described in English in print or online, occurring worldwide between 1900 and 2019.

For the mass school shooting study, the researchers isolated cases of mass murder perpetrated at least in part at schools, colleges, and universities and categorized them by location (within or outside of the US), and whether firearms were used.

Of the 82 incidents of mass murder involving academic settings:

  • Nearly half (47.6%) were U.S.-based.
  • Consistent with previous reports, perpetrators of mass shootings involving academic settings are primarily Caucasian (66.7%) and male (100%).
  • Most involved firearms (63.2%), commonly semi- or fully-automatics.
  • About half (45.6%) of mass school shootings ended with the perpetrator’s suicide.
  • Severe mental illness (e.g., psychosis) was absent in the majority of perpetrators; when present, psychotic symptoms were more often associated with mass murders involving means other than firearms.

Coauthor Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia, said that identifying psychiatric illness as a primary cause of violence is misleading.

“The findings strongly suggest that focusing on mental illness, particularly psychotic illness, when talking about mass school shootings risks is missing other factors that contribute to the vast majority of cases, as well as exacerbating the already widespread stigma surrounding severe mental illness,” said Dr. Appelbaum.

The findings, according to the researchers, could aid lawmakers and law enforcement authorities in understanding the phenomena of mass school shootings, how they differ from other types of mass murder, and how to spot youth who may be problematic but aren’t necessarily schizophrenic or insane. The authors stress that these data cannot be used to predict behavior on an individual level.

Reference: “Mass murders involving firearms and other methods in school, college, and university settings: Findings from the Columbia Mass Murder Database” by Ragy R. Girgis MD, Russell Tyler Rogers MA, Hannah Hesson BA, Jeffrey A. Lieberman MD, Paul S. Appelbaum MD and Gary Brucato PhD, 27 October 2022, Journal of Forensic Sciences.
DOI: 10.1111/1556-4029.15161

11 Comments on "Columbia Mass Murder Database Reveals Mass School Shootings Are Not Caused by Mental Illness"

  1. It may well be that those committing mass murders in an academic setting do not present with classic symptoms commonly associated with severe psychiatric illness. However, I don’t think that any reasonable person would consider a person who kills several people, without obvious motive, and then commits suicide, was mentally well-balanced. There may be unrecognized symptoms for a mental illness that has not yet been named, but the person was not sane.

    It appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. Therefore, we should probably be looking for things that have changed, such as the side-effects of withdrawal from prescription drugs for depression, the marketing of violent video games and Hollywood movies showing explicit violence, or a general social malaise resulting from such things as urban overcrowding and life styles lacking goals and motivation for behavior beyond hedonism.

    With an estimated (CDC) drug overdose rate of well over 100,000 deaths per year, there is clearly a problem that isn’t being addressed adequately. Perhaps these academic mass murders are but a symptom of a much larger problem.

  2. I agree with Clyde and would be interested in finding more research on the effects of regular inundation of mass media on the developing brain. Not just the social impact, peer pressure, etc, but the neuronal changes that are adapting to constant barage of information, conflicting and divisive info, poor diet possibly, doubt and uncertainty undermining the fulfillment of identity, connection and safety. How do these young brains react when they are under this kind of continual stress over many years on the young body? How does separation from Nature, Community, unconditional Love, health and Wholeness, etc work on their brain chemistry? One’s neurology, biome, energy systems are all participating in a coordinated response to these imbalances.

  3. Professional Counselor | November 7, 2022 at 6:04 am | Reply

    As someone who treats mental illness, I could not agree more with these findings. Clinically, we rarely see those with psychosis or severe psychiatric disorders commit these types of offenses, especially with guns. This is not to say there is not something going on, but there is something to say about the existence evil. We cannot simply blame these acts on mental illness and expect the problem to be solved, especially with such a severe lack of resources, professionals, and voluntary intervention.

    • Charles G. Shaver | November 7, 2022 at 7:51 am | Reply

      There is brain damage, there is mental illness and there is mental disorder. Perhaps even worse, there is professional ignorance of a kind of mind-bending food allergy reaction aggravated (or not) with officially (FDA in the US) approved food poisoning, namely modified soy protein (early 1970s) and added ‘cultured-free’ MSG (1980) but there are others which have caused me serious medical problems. Labeled in my youth as “anti-social” and prematurely honorably discharged from the US military for “psychological unsuitability” at age twenty following the first adult onset of then mysterious illnesses, and a psychiatric consultation, I didn’t learn of my own multiple food and food additive allergies until age thirty-seven in 1981 (through shortly thereafter medically abandoned “cytotoxic blood testing for food allergies”); “…there but for fortune…”

      Beginning with the FDA (with replies) of my early lay findings of connections between allergies, added MSG, chronic disease and obesity (a highly visible form of mass lack of self-control) in October of 2005 (obviously, now, in-vain), updating as possible I’ve now been writing more authoritative, qualified and/or resourceful professional others, for a full seventeen years, about 3,000 total, with mostly similar results. One can find more on the “About” page of my newer (censored by and self-deleted YouTube channel) Odysee dot com/@charlesgshaver video channel. Simply put, it’s an ‘illness industry’ and mass-murder-for-profit scheme (e.g., No lives matter!), with the US FDA being the most deadly and treasonous factor with school shootings hardly ‘a drop-in-the-bucket.’ Then, too, there’s also ‘mental disorder.’ The real question is: “Why is it so difficult for college educated professionals to learn from now senior lay American male experience?”

    • Specifically, what is it that you agree with? Do you agree that this particular psychopathic behavior is not preceded by the classic, overt actions commonly associated with other kinds of chronic psychopathic behavior? Might there be asymptomatic aberrant behavior that is the equivalent of asymptomatic infections? Or, might there be something that triggers behavior that has not been observed previously? Typically, it is only something that happens once because the individual either commits suicide, or is incarcerated for life if they survive.

  4. “Most involved firearms (63.2%), commonly semi- or fully-automatics.”
    63% is not “most,” in my book.

    Agree with Mr Spencer, someone who shoots up a classroom full of kids meets the common-sense definition of “crazy.” Suicide also is a marker of temporary insanity unless one has a terminal illness — or is a Manchurian candidate-type programmed killer.

    Lastly, can someone point me to a study of the number of mass shooters who were found to be using psychiatric drugs?

  5. Dr Craig Streett | November 7, 2022 at 1:14 pm | Reply

    A nit to pick, if you proport to rigor in your articles. You state that one common thread is that “Most involved firearms (63.2%), commonly semi- or fully-automatics.” I am virtually certain that none of the incidents involved full-automatic firearms.

    • I agree that it is highly unlikely that any of these academic mass murders were committed with fully-automatic firearms. The use of legal automatic firearms in crime is so rare as to be quite news worthy if one were used. I don’t remember ever reading of an instance of their use. There was one instance of some gang-bangers in Sacramento shooting up the place with illegally modified semiauto pistols, but I don’t think that there were enough people killed to qualify as a “mass murder.”

  6. Look at the families of origin for the answer. My guess is that the father was absent, and the mother was single and severely abusive to the son.

    Also, what was the point of mentioning race? Of course the majority of these perpetrators are white in a country of majority white. But is the percentage of white perpetrators the same as the percentage of white population in the country? Nope.

  7. IMHO, easy availability of guns is NOT actually the main cause of mass murders but it is really NOT properly punishing violent criminals (by executing/hanging)!
    For example, in countries like China people do mass murders using knives!
    Imagine that you are a “loser/nobody” & realize that you can get national/global fame by just randomly murdering as many as possible people! (& more people means more fame!)
    & in return you get lifetime fame & a fully taxpayer paid free retirement & many fans keep sending you letters/gifts!

  8. Same goes for young adults who are never able to mentaly mature and stop fantasizing/
    imaginary play about being,thinking, and living there/thier/thare lives as a cats, dogs…. and are allowed to poop, pee in litter-boxes at schools!

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