Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System

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Updated: Jun 18, 2023
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The second main theme that is in the research focuses on mental illness and mass shootings. Extensive studies have been done on individuals who were bullied and how it impacted their mental capability (Kyle, 2017; Schafer, 2017; Burruss, 2017; Giblin, 2017 and Schildkraut, 2014). Most researchers realized that children that were bullied at some point in their life had a higher chance of developing a mental disorder that later required immediate attention as a grown-up, in comparison to a child that was not intimidated (Kyle, 2017; Schafer, 2017; Burruss, 2017; Giblin, 2017 and Schildkraut, 2014; Hernandez, 2014 and Wike, 2009; Fraser, 2009).

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The researcher’s Kyle, Schafer, Burruss, and Giblin (2017) said in multiple studies that individuals who had experienced bullying not only suffered from emotional distress during their childhood but have shown low performance in school, lacking self-confidence, unhappiness, peer rejection, antisocial behavior, and an enormous risk towards suicide. From this research, it is evident that these problems, such as emotional distress, lack of self-esteem, and unhappiness, are major factors that contribute to the perpetrator’s oppression, which results in mental illness.

Mental illness is a disorder that is described as disturbances in an individual’s emotions, thoughts, or behavior. For example, there were studies conducted by scholars Leary, Kowalski, Smith, and Phillips (2003) based on fifteen school shootings that took place between 1995 and 2001 (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, and Phillips, 2003). The reason behind the study was to examine and rule out any possibilities regarding school shootings and students’ mental status. The studies conclude that twelve (12) out of the fifteen (15) shootings that occurred, the perpetrators had shown previous mental problems such as suffering from psychiatric behavior or immense depression (As cited in Wiki and Fraser, 2009). In agreement with these findings, Leary, Kowalski, Smith, and Phillips (2003) said that 46% of the perpetrators suffered from depression as a result of peer rejections, which automatically caused the individual to retaliate in a state of rampage (As cited in Wiki and Frazer, 2009). In their studies, the scholars say, “Peer rejection and failed romances are common in the shooters […] for high-risk adolescents, experiencing acute rejections may exacerbate an existing problem or contribute to a threshold effect after which normative functioning is compromised” (As cited in Wiki, and Fraser (2009) p. 165). We can see from this research that an individual who has suffered immensely from depression, anxiety disorders, and being socially rejected, their mental health plays an enormous factor in the violence that is carried out. Moreover, it also suggests that their peers may be worse when it comes to the psychological effects of degrading words or harassment because of the peer pressure that the perpetrators get from society. Agreeing with these findings, researchers (Leary et al., 2003) say, “the victims of shootings were those who rejected the perpetrator” (As cited in Wiki and Fraser 2009, p. 165).

Mass shootings on college campuses are similar to high school cases in many ways, with just a slight difference. Scholars in another study focused on and analyzed various school shooting cases from 1974 to 2002 regarding mental health and the shooter’s pattern (Newman, Fox, Harding, Mehta, & Roth, 2004). The researchers found out that college shootings are larger because the perpetrators are much older and, as a consequence, further along in the development of serious mental illness. The scholars also say that the perpetrators are more disconnected from their familiar landmarks of adolescent peer group formation, such as the Virginia Shooter Seung-Hui Cho (As cited in Newman and Fox, 2009). These researchers have concluded their study by saying that mental illness has been a major factor in perpetrators carrying out mass shootings at various school campuses for years.

In further research, scholars Schildkraut and Hernandez (2014) found out that Cho moved from Korea with his family to the United States in 1992; where he remained antisocial while attending middle school and was diagnosed at an early age as having “selective mutism and an immense depression” (Schildkraut and Hernandez, 2014, p. 369-370). However, researchers have looked at gun regulation legislation ever since Columbine, Sandy Hook, Northern University, and Virginia Tech to find out if there were any loopholes in laws that were not passed properly (Schildkraut and Hernandez, (2014).

Although there are stricter gun control laws, legislation is still not properly regulated. According to (Hardy, 1986; Singh, 1999; Zimring, 2001), “The Gun Control Act of 1968 support for which was fueled by the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, was quickly passed and enacted into law on October 22, 1968. The key element of this act was the outlawing of sales of rifles and shotguns by mail order” (As cited in Schildkraut and Hernandez, 2014, p. 360). From this research, there is evidence to prove that even though the law had been in place, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech Mass perpetrator who killed 32 people, was able to violate laws and purchase firearms. In fact, further in the research, scholars Schildkraut and Hernandez (2014) found out that Cho breached the 1968 Fiream Act, as well as the Brady Law, by acquiring guns after several members of the medical community had confirmed Cho as psychopathic. This research tells us that even though Cho passed his background check, he was not mentally stable and was not flagged because the system did not report him as mentally ill (Schildkraut and Hernandez, 2014). Hence, these findings are clearly stating that there are mental health loopholes that need to be addressed.

Mental health continues to be a major factor in perpetrators carrying out mass shootings because of the loopholes that are constantly ignored by the justice system. (Check)
Researchers have taken a different approach to evaluating a person’s mental health in regard to mass shootings (Allely and Faccini, 2017). In a study conducted by (Allely and Faccini, 2017), the scholars found a different way to evaluate a person’s mental stability. Unlike the previous research, these scholars concluded that by using another method, such as the application ‘Path to Intended Violence model,’ they were able to present a reasonable means of classifying key contributing factors that led to perpetrators and their attacks. (Allely and Faccini, 2017). For instance, one of the perpetrators that this model was used on was a 22-year-old college student Elliot Rodger, who carried out a premeditated mass shooting on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, California (Allely and Faccini). As reported in the research, “The Path to Intended Violence model “presents with substantial face validity when applied to mass shootings” (Alley and Faccini, 2017, p. 206). In addition, Elliot Rodger’s clinical presentation included information on his being diagnosed of Asperger’s Syndrome (Duke, 2014), psychosis, and psychopathy (Langman, 2014, as cited in Allely and Faccini, 2017). Rodger’s mother had also informed his life coach about his numerous YouTube ranting video postings. The life coach contacted the Santa Barbara County Health Department, but nothing was done (Brown, 2015, as cited in Allely and Faccini, 2017). After the mass shootings, “Investigations revealed that Elliot Rodger had been receiving treatment for many years for mental health issues” (Alley and Faccini, 2017, p. 203). This research underlines the fact that there are continuous loopholes in the system, which need to be addressed immediately.
Unlike researchers Kyle et al. and Schafer et al., scholars Ferguson and Olson (2014) opposed the belief that societal violence debate regarding youths that are diagnosed with prior mental illnesses also play aggressive video games. Researchers Ferguson and Olson (2014) studied 377 children, 62 % female, mixed ethnicity, from 13yr up, using the method known as the Pediatric Symptom Checklist to evaluate their mental stability, such as attention deficit or depressive symptoms (Ferguson and Olson 2014). From the data collected, Ferguson and Olson (2014) conclude their findings and suggest that there is “no evidence that suggests increased bullying or delinquent behaviors among youths with such illness contributed to real-life violence” (p. 127). This indicates that violent media is not a major factor in mental health. In addition to Ferguson and Olson’s (2014) findings, they also mention that “Our results did not support the hypothesis that children with elevated mental health symptoms constitute a ‘vulnerable’ population for video game violence effects” (Ferguson and Olson, 2014, p. 127). Ferguson and Olson (2014) finished their study and suggested that more extensive research is needed because of “the explosion in popularity and availability of video games” (p. 128). This study is basically saying that society’s perception of video games is not accurate towards mentally challenged individuals, and continued investigation is needed.

Researchers Giancola and Zeichner 1995; Ritter and Eslea (2005) conducted studies on a lot of college students to find out college students’ mental capability in regard to violent video games. For instance, the scholars Giancola and Zeichner 1995; Ritter and Eslea (2005) used laboratory methods to monitor video game violence’s effect on college students. The researchers’ findings contradicted the previous researchers (Ferguson and Olson 2014). Giancola and Zeichner 1995; Ritter and Eslea (2005) has determined that by using laboratory methods to measure behavior pattern, they found that college students reacted differently and showed relatively aggressive behavior towards words such as “kill” rather than “kiss” (Giancola and Zeichner 1995; Ritter and Eslea 2005, as cited in Ferguson and Olson, 2014).


Researchers have agreed that an individual who has been the victim of bullying at some point in their life can become traumatized, which can later lead to a catastrophic event: mass school shootings (Agnich, 2015; Fallahi, 2009; Austad, Fallon, Leishman, 2009; Elsass, Schildkraut, Stafford, 2016; Kaminski, Koons-Witt, Thompson, Weiss, 2010). However, other scholars have conducted research and concluded what they perceived of a mass shooting perpetrator. Scholars such (as Agnich, 2015; and Elsass et al. 2016) have conducted a study of 282 identified cases across 38 nations and found that mass shooters who have had poor parental monitoring are disconnected from a responsible, caring adult and rejected can lead to mass rampage. Fallahi et al. (2009) have conducted numerous surveys and have concluded factors towards individuals that have been perceived as being bullied. The scholars surveyed Faculty on how they perceived a mass shooter after the incident: Virginia Tech. The Faculty and staff all had different perceptions, but the majority agreed perceived factor of an individual being bullied.

On the other hand, researchers have concluded that mental illness has been immensely contributor to mass school shootings (Kyle, 2017; Schafer, 2017; Burruss, 2017; Giblin, 2017 and Schildkraut, 2014; Hernandez, 2014 and Wike, 2009; Fraser, 2009). Researchers have conducted studies on school shootings between 1995 and 2001 to find out the exact motive of the perpetrators (Leary, Kowalski, Smith, and Phillips, 2003). Researchers Leary, Kowalski, Smith, and Phillips (2003) found that in twelve out of fifteen shootings, the perpetrators had previously suffered from an aforementioned psychological abuse prior to the incident. The research also found that gun control has been a continuing hot topic in the United States for years. In the research the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a 2011 survey that reported that 26 % of Americans supported the banning of handguns, and 43 % supported the banning of semiautomatic firearms (Schildkraut and Hernandez, 2014). The researchers, Schildkraut and Hernandez (2014) stated that “support for handgun bans has continually declined since 1959 then 60 %, and support for restrictions on semiautomatic guns has continued to decline since the expiration of the AWB, both experienced slight increases in support around the time of the Columbine shooting” (Schildkraut, and Hernandez 2014 p. 368). This research says that Americans have continued to support the banning of weapons for decades now.

A minority of the research also found the most interesting findings that were reported by the polls. Researchers Newport and Jones (2011) say 60 percent of Americans are in favor of current gun laws rather than passing new ones, as opposed to the findings were 38 percent. As reported in another poll done by Gallup, the researchers finished by saying, “Stricter gun control laws 24 % and better mental health screening 15 % were the two most important measures that could prevent mass shootings” (Newport and Jones, 2011, as cited in Schildkraut, 2014 p. 368).

Furthermore, the government continues to advocate for stricter gun laws as a way to reduce access to mass shootings. However, as we can see, these attempts to reduce violence are unsuccessful; hence, the attention that is needed to strengthen the nation’s mental health has drastically diminished. Limitations placed on mental health programs have failed to protect our nation and intrude on society’s ability to live in peace. (Wolf and Rosen, 2015). As a method of solution, we must put the proper resources in place and become readily available to society. Additionally, we must allocate a bill so Congress can pass a bipartisan measure where mentally challenged individuals can go and get the treatment they need. With that, I believe we will have fewer mass shootings.
The research talked about in this literature review indicates that education and future research is definitely needed in regard to bullying and mental illness. Researchers will need to focus on numbers to give us better and more accurate data. Nevertheless, we must patch the loopholes and begin to educate society while focusing on preventive strategies that will diminish the possibility of an attack significantly. Therefore, as an alternative to promoting stricter gun policies toward the mentally ill, we must supplement the need for increased mental health prevention funding and available resources; we are pointing at the wrong target (Wolf and Rosen, 2015).


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  2. Allely, & Faccini. (2017). ‘Path to intended violence’ model for understanding mass violence in the case of Elliot Rodger. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 37, 201-209.
    Fallahi, C. R., Austad, C. S., Fallon, M., & Leishman, L. (2009). A survey of perceptions of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Journal of School Violence, 8(2), 120. Retrieved from
  3. Ferguson, C., & Olson, C. (2014). Video game violence use among “Vulnerable” Populations: The impact of violent games on delinquency and bullying among children with clinically elevated depression or attention deficit symptoms. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 43(1), 127–136.
  4. Jaymi Elsass, H., Schildkraut, J., & Stafford, M. C. (2016). Studying school shootings: Challenges and considerations for research. American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 41(3), 444-464. doi://
  5. Kaminski, R. J., Koons-Witt, B. A., Thompson, N. S., & Weiss, D. (2010). The impacts of the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings on fear of crime on campus. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38(1), 88. Retrieved from
  6. Kyle, M. J., Schafer, J. A., Burruss, G. W., & Giblin, M. J. (2017). Perceptions of campus safety policies: Contrasting the views of students with faculty and staff. American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 42(3), 644-667. doi://
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  8. Schildkraut, J., & Hernandez, T. C. (2014). Laws that bit the bullet: A review of legislative responses to school shootings. American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 39(2), 358-374. doi://
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  10. Wolf, C. R., & Rosen, J. A. (2015). Missing the mark: Gun control is not the cure for what ails the U.S. mental health system. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 104(4), 851-878. Retrieved from
  11. Wike, Traci L. Fraser, Mark M. (2009). School shootings: Making sense of the senseless. Aggression and violent behavior., 14(3), 162-169.
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Mental Illness in the Criminal Justice System. (2023, Jun 18). Retrieved from