The Problem with Linking Mental Health to Violence


Simon Martial, Michelle Go’s murder, is seen being arrested by the NYPD.(Courtesy of Instagram)

Two weeks ago, like most, I watched the hostage situation at a Texas synagogue unfold with horror and sadness. But not shock. 

In America, we’re accustomed to hearing stories of interpersonal violence, like what happened in the Texas synagogue on Jan. 14, the two police officers killed two weeks ago or even seeing teachers on TikTok share their “hacks” in the all-too-likely event of a school shooting. But something that has been bothering me lately is how we talk about the perpetrators of those violent acts.

The motivations that led Malik Faisal Akram to hold four people hostage in Congregation Beth Israel for 11 hours are still unclear. After the hostages escaped, FBI agents killed Akram while securing the area. Akram’s brother could not shed any more light on his reasons, only saying that “it’s well known, everybody in the town knows, he has mental health issues,” and that Akram’s “mental state had further deteriorated” after the death of one of their brothers.

Akram is only the latest in a string of attackers to have their mental state cited as a reason, if not a defense, for their violent actions. The same day as the hostage situation in Texas, Michelle Go was shoved to her death in front of a New York City subway car. Her murderer, Simon Martial, is “undergoing a psychiatric evaluation at Bellevue Hospital, … but he is expected to be arraigned on murder charges,” law enforcement officials said. In 2019, he was charged with drug possession, but “the case was dismissed because of his mental state.”

Tying a person’s violent and horrific actions to their mental state has harmful ramifications for those with mental illness. From a journalistic standpoint, a subject’s mental state can help establish the 5Ws. But when so little is known about the subject and their motivations, solely commenting on their “mental health issues” can lead to a dangerous assumption that everyone with a mental illness can perpetrate violent acts.

I am not suggesting that these news stories are wrong, nor am I questioning the validity of the mental health issues faced by Akram or Martial. I am saying that the media’s suggestion that Akram and Martial’s threats and murder, respectively, resulted from their mental health issues perpetuates negative stigma around mental illness.

An article from the National Institutes of Health called “Trends In News Media Coverage Of Mental Illness In The United States: 1995–2014” found that in news stories regarding mental health, “overall, the most frequently mentioned topics pertained to interpersonal violence, suicide and treatment of mental illness.” In other words, news stories overwhelmingly focus on the negative aspects of mental health issues (i.e., violence, though rare) instead of positive stories (i.e., education, treatment, reform).

Furthermore, a study conducted by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) titled “Mental Illness and Violence: Is There a Link?” found that “in a randomly selected sample of 400 U.S. news stories about mental illness from 1995-2014, over half discussed mental illness and violence together and were more likely to focus on interpersonal violence, not suicide or self-harm.”

Using a poor mental state as justification or some explanation for why a violent event occurred is a cop-out, and only serves to disempower the people struggling with mental health issues who do not hurt anyone. In reality, people with mental health issues are more often the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators, according to an article from

“The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness,” the article goes on to say.

If a very small minority of violent acts are caused by people with a serious mental illness, why do the majority of mental health stories harp on their violence? And why is the coverage of two of the biggest, most violent breaking events of the year so far focusing on the perpetrators’ mental health issues?

The media and the general public should change how they think about people who cause such violence and terror. Writing off their behavior as effects of mental illness does not justify their actions, and only serves to stigmatize people with mental illness who don’t terrorize others.

Nicole Braun, FCRH ’24, is an English major from Saddle River, N.J.