Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: Bringing epidemiologic research to policy

Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, Vickie M. Mays

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

148 Scopus citations


Purpose: This article describes epidemiologic evidence concerning risk of gun violence and suicide linked to psychiatric disorders, in contrast to media-fueled public perceptions of the dangerousness of mentally ill individuals, and evaluates effectiveness of policies and laws designed to prevent firearms injury and mortality associated with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Methods: Research concerning public attitudes toward persons with mental illness is reviewed and juxtaposed with evidence from benchmark epidemiologic and clinical studies of violence and mental illness and of the accuracy of psychiatrists' risk assessments. Selected policies and laws designed to reduce gun violence in relation to mental illness are critically evaluated; evidence-based policy recommendations are presented. Results: Media accounts of mass shootings by disturbed individuals galvanize public attention and reinforce popular belief that mental illness often results in violence. Epidemiologic studies show that the large majority of people with serious mental illnesses are never violent. However, mental illness is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide, which accounts for over half of US firearms-related fatalities. Conclusions: Policymaking at the interface of gun violence prevention and mental illness should be based on epidemiologic data concerning risk to improve the effectiveness, feasibility, and fairness of policy initiatives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)366-376
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of epidemiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • Firearms
  • Guns
  • Law
  • Mental illness
  • Policy
  • Psychiatric disorder
  • Risk
  • Stigma
  • Suicide
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology


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