Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Kang, Tamara


Introduction: The public often believes that ‘mentally ill’ individuals are more prone to dangerous and criminal behavior and more inclined towards gun violence. These misperceptions have negative consequences on justice-involved individuals with a mental illness who are reintegrating into society post-incarceration. Media is often cited as a reason for the spread of misperceptions, but these results may not apply to rural communities. Rather, in rural areas, social support is essential to success due to lack of modern technology, no/lacking public transportation, limited mental health services, employment opportunities, and available housing, and may play a more significant role in perception development. Misperceptions held by rural residents can exacerbate existing environmental barriers. Aims: This thesis examines how rural residents’ beliefs and perceptions regarding the association between mental illness and gun violence may be differentially impacted by: (1) media consumption, (2) social relationships, and (3) personal experiences. Method: 32 rural residents were recruited to participate in an open-ended qualitative interview. The qualitative interview examined the extent to which social relationships, personal experiences, and media consumption impacted development of beliefs and misperceptions regarding the association between mental illness and gun violence and beliefs about gun control. Analytical Plan: Using methods from both directed and traditional qualitative content analysis, codes were developed to analyze influential social relationships, personal experiences and media consumption on belief and perception development regarding mental illness and gun violence, along with gun control. These codes were then used to organize and analyze relevant aspects of participant interviews in order to create insight into emergent themes. Results: The most prominent emergent theme was idiosyncrasy, suggesting rural residents are a heterogeneous population. For example, participants reported that interpersonal contact both increased and decreased misperceptions, depending on the participant. While idiosyncrasies is a major thematic emergence, much more emerged beyond this. Participants displayed widely varying definitions of what a mental illness is, conflating mental illness with things such as mental retardation and lupus; this lack of an understanding of what a mental illness is, is reflected in another result – that misperceptions surrounding mental illness are prevalent in this rural sample. Participants also displayed distrust in the media and the way they portray mental illness and gun violence in particular. Other minor sub-themes and thematic emergences manifested within the data. Implications: The results of this thesis contribute to a better understanding of the role of factors such as: misunderstandings of what mental illness is, the lack of a role of relationship closeness, and the importance of personal experience, and how these may promote or reduce misconceptions regarding gun violence and mental illness in rural communities. This expanded understanding allows for the development of effective, culturally competent psychoeducation targeted specifically towards rural residents, which will ideally be accomplished by incorporating the effects on (mis)perception development of the aforementioned influences. This is imperative, as findings in extant literature may be differentially relevant in rural communities.




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