Mass Shootings and Mental Illness
“He was a sick man, a demented man,” – President Trump
“Common sense said you don’t let those who suffer from mental illness buy guns.” — Jimmy Kimmel
On Sunday, I woke up to reports of yet another mass shooting. It was devastating to hear of so many more innocent lives lost so senselessly, and so many more injured.
What came next were the debates about gun control, and then I started to read discussions on social media. The general consensus was that this must have been driven by “mental illness.” People were saying that we need to get control of people with mental illnesses; that the mental healthcare system is lacking.
If the terrorist or perpetrator is Muslim, their violent acts are assumed to be driven by religion, and therefore all Muslims must be terrorists. If they are white, then it’s always blamed on the lack of mental health care in America. The majority of terrorists in America are not Muslim, and the majority of people with a mental health condition are not violent.
Why don’t people take issue that there is a “lack of mental health care in the US” any other time than when we are in a crisis, such as the recent mass shooting? If we, the community of people who have mental health conditions, actually had this number of people advocating for us year-round, we might have better mental health care and more access to services. It is true, we do need better mental health care and more access to services, but it shouldn’t only be a subject of discussion when there is a mass shooting, and it shouldn’t be a result of the stigma and fear that some have of a group of people.
Something to observe pointed out by Fareed Zakaria (2017) in the Washington Post is that the people in office who immediately point fingers at “mental illness” as the cause of mass shootings in the US are usually the same ones who push for less mental health care funding.
In reality, only “3 – 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with serious mental illness.”It’s also true that people living with mental health conditions are over ten times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than anyone else.
The highest risk factors for violence are a history of violent victimization, substance abuse, and exposure to violence in your environment.
Dr. Michelle Heyland put it best: “Hatred is not a mental illness. Terrorism is not a mental illness. Blaming violence on mental illness, used as an umbrella term, is dangerous in and of itself.” (Heyland,2017).
There are many different types of mental illness. You can’t lump them all into one category. I have personally lived with mental illness for most of my life. I have never been violent, nor have I ever felt the need to be. When people explain that violence is caused by “mental illness”, they have often mentioned schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is probably one of the most misunderstood disorders. There are so many things people may not know about people with mental illnesses and schizophrenia especially. There are people living with schizophrenia who are successful doctors and professionals, yet a lot of people lump them into one group. A great example is Dr. Dan Fisher, who is one of the few Psychiatrists in the US who is open about his diagnosis of schizophrenia. One quote I love from a person with schizophrenia is “I’m just someone who cannot turn off my nightmares even when I’m awake.” It’s also true that not everyone with schizophrenia has delusions or hallucinations.
Schizophrenia is so misunderstood just like almost every mental illness. It’s also a common myth that people with schizophrenia are violent. If they are violent due to their paranoia or delusions, it is most likely brought on by something else like trauma or substance abuse.
We should bring awareness to mental health and mental healthcare all year round, not just when there is a crisis, and not because of an unjustifiable stigma. It is clear that we have a long way to go in order to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness, but perhaps with better awareness, it can be done.
Photo by Darron Birgenheier
Gearsbeck, C. (2017). Mass Shootings and Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/millennial/2017/10/mass-shootings-and-mental-illness/