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Medical Humanities’ Impact on Gun Violence


Mass shootings may be regarded as a serious complex social issue that regularly affects a considerable number of people. However, in order to minimize its scope, it is essential to understand what causes gun violence. From the medical perspective, mental health disorders are regarded as major factors that lead to mass shootings. At the same time, the problem of mass shootings requires a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach for the development of efficient preventative measures. The purpose of this paper is to examine how Medical Humanities may contribute to the solution of the problem connected with gun violence.

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Medical Humanities: General Background

Medical Humanities may be defined as an increasingly international field of medicine that includes social sciences, the humanities, and the arts for their application to health care. It is “an integrated, interdisciplinary, philosophical approach to recording and interpreting human experiences of illness, disability, and medical intervention” for a better understanding of health conditions and sensitive care (Wald et al. 492). Howard Brody, an American philosopher, bioethicist, and family physician, presented the three fundamental conceptions of Medical Humanities: “a list of disciplines, a program of moral development, and … a supportive friend” (Kutac et al. 372). At the same time, there is no one common perception of this field. Some medical humanists connect it with humanism, a quality and an ethical position of health care specialists, while others refer to medical humanities to bioethics. However, the largest group of professionals perceive this approach as a set of academic fields to study health care.

Medical Humanities use tools, methods, and ideas from various disciplines, such as history, philosophy, ethics, religion, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology, geography, visual arts, film, and theater to create innovative strategies, understand, and improve medical practice and education. Medical Humanities aim to explore and explain the cultural and social context that surrounds particular challenges and purposes of health care. In the present day, Medical Humanities is embedded in the departments of translational science on the basis of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Kutac et al. 379). While translational science aims to improve health care delivery and public health by implementing innovations into clinical practice, Medical Humanities shapes its discourse and helps design research projects that protect human dignity advancing human health.

As a matter of fact, this field cannot be regarded as a new one. In 1984, an American academic and bioethicist Edmund Pellegrino stated that “medicine connects technical and moral questions in its clinical decisions: it is required to be both objective and compassionate” (Wald et al. 492). According to him, health care has the qualities of both humanities and sciences and cannot belong exclusively to any of them (Wald et al. 492). Indeed, decisions about whom and when to treat, how to develop health services, and how to prevent various diseases cannot be made without taking into consideration non-scientific realities. They traditionally include modern economic and political situations, ethical judgments, cultural norms, historical facts, socially conditioned risk perceptions, and future aspirations. Thus, Medical Humanities enables professionals to focus on these realities and examine them critically in order to evaluate and improve health care delivery.

In the present day, when the world is constantly and rapidly changing, Medical Humanities is able to question even the fundamental approaches to health care. Within the field of medicine, technological progress is genuinely remarkable. The 21st century may be characterized by the development of nanotechnology, robotics, genome editing, and 3D printing, an increasing array of health care tools, and new techniques essential both for education and practice. At the same time, evidence-based health care the significance of which is currently emphasized describes people from the position of biomedical science. However, regardless of the fact that evidence is essential, this approach will never be fully sufficient for appropriate health care delivery. On the contrary, Medical Humanities focuses on the balance between caring and humanistic care, “forming deeper connections with patients, maintaining joy and meaning in medicine, and developing empathy and resilience” (Wald et al. 492). The integration of this field into clinical practice and education supports health care providers in the development of essential professional qualities, including communication skills, self-awareness, holistic approach, and cultural competence.

Mass Shootings

As a matter of fact, the belief concerning the connection between mental health and gun violence and the efficiency of this issue’s solution through public health appeared more than 20 years ago. The American College of Physicians issued their first statement in 1995 in which they raised concern about the increasing number of gun violence cases in the United States (DeFoster and Swalve 2). In addition, the organization advocated for the inclusion of gun violence in the list of public health issues. Later, in 2015, the American Bar Association in collaboration with eight national health organizations issued specific recommendations to raise awareness concerning injuries and deaths due to gun violence. In general, the majority of experts required additional funding to organize scientific researches dedicated to this disturbing issue.

At the same time, a mass shooting is a particular type of gun violence with its specific characteristics that should be understood for the examination of causes and the development of responsive measures. It differs from gang violence, domestic violence, and other crimes “that are extensions of previous incidents” (DeFoster and Swalve 3). In general, a mass shooting refers to a single incident of gun violence in which a considerable number of people simultaneously become victims. However, mass shootings have three particular elements that distinguish them from other similar crimes.

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Thus, as previously mentioned, mass shootings should exclude crimes that may be defined as “extensions of previous incidents or feuds, such as gang violence, as well as robberies” (DeFoster and Swalve 3). In addition, in mass shootings, victims are not recognized or targeted by an offender. Furthermore, the attack should be a single accident and take place in a semi-public or public place. Finally, according to FBU guidelines and the majority of journalists and scholars, in the case of a mass shooting, a murderer or a group of murderers should kill at least four people (DeFoster and Swalve 3). With a help of mass media that frames mass shootings and influences their perception by society, the common reasons for these incidents include inadequate security, poor law enforcement intervention and gun control, pop culture, social immorality, illicit drug use, lack of parents’ involvement, secularism, individual character, and mental disorders. The offender’s mental health, as a potential reason for a mass shooting, attracts the particular attention of health care specialists. Their investigations in this field may substantially contribute to the reduction of the problem of mass shootings.

Mass Shootings from the Medical Perspective

As a matter of fact, mass shootings in public places may be regarded as a serious social issue that may affect people’s physical and mental health. Although in the United States, they account for no more than 0.5% of homicides, approximately 71% of adults report that they are afraid of being victims of mass shootings (Metzl et al. 81). Moreover, according to a national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 1 out of 3 individuals try to avoid semi-public and public places due to their fear (Metzl et al. 81). In the present day, in response to increasing community concerns related to the threat of mass shootings, multiple public officials point to mental health disorders in order to explain these acts of violence. Their statements coincide with the public’s major beliefs that people with mental illnesses are dangerous. At the same time, this approach to the factors of mass shootings cannot be regarded as valid and it may lead to serious negative consequences.

As a matter of fact, there is no clear evidence concerning the scope of mental illnesses’ impact in relation to mass shootings. According to the examination of several mass shooters, a considerable number of them had previously unknown mental health diagnoses, and none were receiving any treatment. In addition, regardless of the increased number of incidents connected with gun violence, there is a lack of appropriate medical researches dedicated to the nature of killers’ mental illnesses. On the one hand, some experts believe that mass shooting are caused by severe psychiatric disorders that require proper diagnosis and comprehensive treatment as any other health issue. On the other hand, numerous scholars conduct their own studies that demonstrate the non-significance of shooters’ mental disorders. In other words, the majority of killers had non-diagnosable mental disorders, such as anger, every day stress, unhappiness, jealousy, or dissatisfaction – what the majority of contemporary people have.

People’s definition of a killer as a mentally ill individual reinforces unrealistic expectations concerning mental health experts’ indisputable ability to predict mass shootings and prevent them as well. As a result, it strengthens public support for inappropriate measures, including restrictive interventions and policies in relation to psychiatric patients that unreasonably become the victims of public stigmatization as asocial and dangerous individuals (Metzl et al. 81). On the other hand, mental health professionals have an authority that provides an opportunity to reframe mass shooting-related debates and change the audience’s perception of this issue. Therefore, it is Medical Humanities that may contribute to its solution by the examination of mental health from the multidisciplinary perspective.

Contribution of Medical Humanities

Investigating the causes of mass shootings, researchers should abandon the common assumption that mass violence is driven by isolated individuals’ diagnosable psychopathology. Instead, they may “situate such destructive motivations within larger social structures and cultural scripts” (Metzl et al. 82). In other words, by applying Medical Humanities, health care professionals define various factors that may lead to mental health disorders that are not directly connected with medicine. The media-stylized motivation of offenders relies on stereotypes dedicated to mental disorders’ inherent dangerousness. At the same time, these stereotypes do not consider the role of multiple highly important contributing factors that should be identified for efficient responsive measures.

There is a great variety of causes that may trigger the development of mental health disorders and related crimes. They may include the level of the perpetrator’s social disadvantage, stressful economic circumstances, maladaptive personality development due to early-life trauma, or domestic violence exposure. Moreover, mental illnesses may be determined by smoldering anger and aggrieved resentment against particular individuals or groups regarded by an individual as threatening, hostile, or abhorrent (Metzl et al. 82). In relation to men, aberrant constructions of the gender of associated masculinity may cause mental disorders as well. In addition, mentally unstable individuals may be affected by previous crimes. In other words, mass shootings may inspire others – this fact is proved by the evidence of shooters’ mimicking killing tactics or gestures of other killers. According to forensic psychologists, these offenders perceive themselves as the members of a particular brotherhood that consists of like-minded, resentful, and isolated individuals.

At the same time, modern global challenges and their impact on people’s mental health indicate the necessity of additional researches. For instance, the pandemic caused by the spread of the coronavirus is associated with multiple negative consequences, including isolation, loss of income, absence of integration, low-quality housing, weak social relations, and poor quality of the information received (Wathelet et al. 1). As a result, a considerable number of people experience severe distress, anger, high level of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts (Wathelet et al. 1). In addition, due to health care providers’ workload connected with the pandemic, individuals with already existing mental issues cannot receive appropriate care delivery and psychiatric follow-up. Thus, some of these factors enhanced by substance intoxication along with free access to a weapon may lead to mass shootings.

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In addition, scholars should scrutinize any correlation of mental disorders with gun violence affected by racial bias. Regardless of the fact that the United States political and popular discourse addresses white male shooters with serious mental health issues, the impact of race and ethnicity is traditionally omitted from researches and published studies (Metzl et al. 84). However, the situation is completely different when a perpetrator involved in mass shootings is non-White. According to the analysis of data dedicated to mass shootings committed in 2013-2015, White and Latin American make perpetrators “were more likely to have their crimes attributed to mental illness than were shootings by black men” (Metzl et al. 84). All in all, racial peculiarities should be regarded in the investigation of factors that lead to mental health disorders and mass shootings in general to develop comprehensive responsive strategies. At the same time, racial bias should not distort health care specialists’ understanding of the acts of violence and limit the scope of their studies.

Medical Humanities may additionally promote public awareness of the political and social determinants of mass shootings. As a matter of fact, the public health system is responsible for not only health care delivery but for the dissemination of information essential for disease prevention. In the case of gun violence, researchers who consider social, political, cultural, and psychological aspects of the United States private gun ownership are able to develop a more efficient approach to prevent shootings (Metzl et al. 85). Thus, not only the motivation of shooters should be examined but cultural attributes toward a weapon and gun ownership, laws and policies concerning gun access, and traditional responses to conflicts commonly accepted in society.

Finally, community engagement is essential for the interdisciplinary research dedicated to mass shootings for their prevention in the future. First of all, the studies of “how perceptions and potential biases surrounding mental illness and firearms intersect with those that involve race, gender, and class” are required for the minimization of psychiatric patients’ stigmatization (Metzl et al. 85). In addition, community engagement should be provided through friendly communication and ongoing dialogue between community members, including health care providers, children, parents, security officers, and social workers. In general, as an interdisciplinary approach, Medical Humanities is beneficial for the minimization of mass shooting cases. It helps health care providers define political, economic, cultural, social, and medical causes of this issue and develop the most appropriate strategies on their basis.


On the basis of the current research, it is possible to conclude that Medical Humanities may substantially contribute to the prevention of mass shootings. Although mental health issues traditionally cause gun violence, it is essential to consider all social, economic, political, cultural, and personal reasons that may lead to the development of these issues. In the majority of cases, killers had non-diagnosable mental health disorders that are typical for a considerable number of people in the modern society. However, in the combination with other factors, they lead to abhorrent incidents. In addition, by addressing all disciplines, Medical Humanities helps develop efficient strategies of information dissemination and community engagement that will minimize the number of mass shooting cases. Thus, due to Medical Humanities, all factors that may lead to mental health problems and related gun violence in different fields may be identified and efficiently addressed to prevent their negative consequences.

Works Cited

DeFoster, Ruth, and Natashia Swalve. “Guns, Culture or Mental Health? Framing Mass Shootings as a Public Health Crisis.” Health Communication, 2017, pp. 1-12.

Kutac, Julie, et al. “Innovation Through Tradition: Rediscovering the “Humanist” in the Medical Humanities.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 37, no. 4, 2016, pp. 371-387.

Metzl, Jonathan M., et al. “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Future of Psychiatric Research into American Gun Violence.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, vol. 29, no. 1, 2021, pp. 81-89.

Wald, Hedy. S., et al. “Medical Humanities in Medical Education and Practice.” Medical Teacher, vol. 41, no. 5, 2019, pp. 492-496.

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Wathelet, Marielle, et al. “Factors Associated with Mental Health Disorders Among University Students in France Confined During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” JAMA Network Open, vol. 3, no. 10, 2020, pp. 1-13.

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