Mental Illness and Terrorism

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In the United States today, the rise of mass shootings committed by a single individual continues to be a perplexing and worrying issue. In attempts to discover the motivation of the criminal and cope through the injustice, social media and news sources are largely inclined to respond and instill the label on a criminal as either terrorist or mentally ill. The dichotomy between whether there is a difference between either is complex, but essential to question if we ever want to understand and eventually help stop those who commit at large crimes such as the ones of the past years. If in fact what is causing this growing trend a mislabeling, there needs to be change to solve the issue of inborn prejudice against certain groups to properly address whether mental illness is at the root.

Terrorism is described by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” ( In an article on Lawyer Monthly, the question of whether criminals who commit mass murders should be addressed as “mentally unwell” rather than terrorists is raised as a tough topic because of how little is still done in helping those with genuine mental illnesses. They acknowledge those who claim mental illness is a bad excuse for what these members of society do to their environment, but without an understanding of how to separate both terms, treatment or proper explanation will never be reached.

Mary Prior QC, a jury advocate, speaks on the stigmatization of mental health and its ignorance when it comes to the skin color of those initially suspected as terrorists. Las Vegas gunman, Stephen Paddock, will never give an explanation as to why he carried out one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history because of his death right after his actions. However, even with the little evidence as to what set off his violent behavior, mass media and political officials such as Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo used “psychopath” and “sick man” to describe his actions. She explains, “Had he been black, that label would have been “gang violence” or “urban decay”. Had he been brown that label would have been “terrorist ties.” As he was white, the label was “lone wolf.” (Prior, 2017)

NPR host Rachel Martin highlights this with guest speaker Shankar Vedantam. Their conversation shows new social psychology research conducted by Azim Shariff explaining the tendency to address mass shooters as either labeled terrorists or mentally ill; it is found, more often than not, not all these terms are reached for similarly in each case. This can be supported in the attack by Omar Mateen. His shooting in Orlando would have been labeled as “unstable lone wolf” if his profile were not drowned with the fact that he shouted Islamic State allegiance before opening fire at a gay and Latino nightclub. Vedantam addresses this “lone wolf” title would not be given to someone who’s pictures released were of a clearly ethnic man, and equally if he were to claim other religious beliefs. “For people high in anti-Muslim prejudice, people are very unlikely to perceive the Muslim shooter to be mentally ill. But people are completely comfortable in saying that the Christian shooter was mentally ill.” News outlets did not claim Mateen as a “psychopath” or “sick,” they instead used terrorist and didn’t question his mental competency as they did for Paddock (Barry, Kovaleski, Blinder, Mashal, 2016).

This topic is dense and a large question that might not be answerable. Still, I look forward to looking further into the use of terminology and analyzing the effects it has on what terrorism is considered to be in the United States. If the explanation of mass shootings is an increase in overlooked mental illnesses, inherited prejudice against groups might not be the best way to find solutions to these horrific acts.

– Brenda Uriona

Work Cited

Barry, D., Kovaleski, S. F., Blinder, A., Mashal M. (2016, June 18). ‘Always Agitated. Always Mad’: Omar Mateen, According to Those Who Knew Him. Retrieved from (2018). Terrorism. Retrieved from

Lawyer Monthly. (2017, December 18). Terrorism Vs. Mentally Ill: Are The Mentally Unfit Prosecuted Fairly? Retrieved from

Vedantam, Shankar. (2017, October 5). Classifying Attacks: Mental Illness Or Terrorism? Retrieved from

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