Why Do We Keep Blaming Gun Violence On Mental Illness?

gun violence

In the wake of dozens of mass shootings in recent memory, there have been several debates floating around about how to address these issues. The conversations seem to boil down to two main solutions: better mental health care access and stricter gun control. And while both are extremely important, it’s also imperative that we control the narrative about why we need mental healthcare in America.

It’s no secret that we do a poor job of addressing mental healthcare in America. Nearly 20 percent of adults suffer from any mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and that is those who are diagnosed. Many cannot afford quality mental health care, and those who can have to deal with the endless amounts of stigma that come with identifying and showing public symptoms of a mental illness.

On top of the normal stigmas that come with mental illness, it can be pretty confusing as someone living with a mental illness, to hear that conflated with the debate about gun control. Make no mistake, of course guns and mental health care deserve to be in the same debate, but having a mental illness does not make someone inherently violent. According to the Institute of Medicine “… the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small,” and further, “the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population.” And even if there was a strong correlation, there are millions more people living with mental illness than there are people who commit mass violence.

So why the constant debate? Well, it comes from a variety of factors. For one, the face of mass shooters in recent years have been similar: white (or passing as white), male, young, with radical social views. These shooters make the news for their almost cinema-like manifestos, grand declarations and hatred of a certain group (minorities, women, attractive men).

OK, so we see these men with their bug-eyed mugshots and read their horrifying testimonies and of course we jump to the first conclusion that makes sense: they’re “crazy.” They’re bipolar. They’re schizophrenic. They have some type of chemical imbalance that has driven them to react that way.

And that’s normal, we want there to be this quick fix and stamp of reasoning on these horrifying actions. But, why is it that almost no one assumed the 9/11 terrorists had multiple personality disorder? Why can we blame completely different things on something so similar? Why are we allowing the masses on social media to suddenly act as psychologists and diagnose someone with a serious mental illness?

Even public figures are getting in on the mental illness bandwagon, with Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, calling for more mental health care and less gun control.

“When a deranged psycho path [sic] kills innocents we do not hear a public out-cry [sic] for more mental health funding and research, we see a political agenda being pushed to take away our guns,” Gottlieb said.

Whether if you call these mass shootings acts of terrorism or not, they have more in common with suicide bombings and large-scale terrorists attacks than is being discussed. For example, to take the most recent (and God, I hope by the time I am publishing it that this is still the most recent) mass shooting at the AME Church in Charleston. The shooter wrote a racist manifesto, donned confederate flag gear and told his victims that he was shooting them because of their race and still, the initial narrative was mental health issues, not his radicalized ideals.

It’s unfair to conflate shootings with mental illness. There are millions of people living with mental illnesses and they don’t go out shooting innocent people. No, the conversation we actually need to be happening is how society as a whole influences people to hate and internalize stereotypes about a group of people.

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A mentally healthy person does not necessarily go into a church and kill people. But, a person who is spoon-fed racism, sexism and hatred by society since birth and has some kind of personality flaw just may.

Resisting the urge to diagnose someone with a mental illness who commits such an atrocious act is hard. But, at a certain point, we need to call a spade a spade (remember, most of these shooters have called themselves racist, sexist, etc).

Having a conversation about this issue is difficult because it involves addressing the issues that we need to acknowledge. And it will cause us to realize the cold truth that maybe a completely sane person was just filled with so much hatred and rage that they chose to commit this savage act.

It needs to be done so that no more black lives are lost. It needs to be done so that women can feel safe. It needs to be done so that LGBT people can be free to be themselves. It needs to be done so those with mental illnesses can get treatment—not so they don’t shoot up a school, but so they don’t hurt themselves and can live a life as free of pain as possible. It needs to happen so those same people don’t have to hear their mental illness being so publicly tied to racist murderers who have no diagnosis, day in and day out.

There has been a bit more discussion in how race and racism has played into the Charleston shootings and that’s a good step, but moving forward does not involve blaming the victims for not having a gun or shouting into the void about why this happened. It involves a hard conversation.

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