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.