A moment: today as I was ranting in our inter-office chat to a co-worker, I said, “thanks for letting me talk before I just snapped on this other person.” Then I raced to hastily add, “I mean, ‘snap’ as in yell or something. Not anything bad.” This fleeting, normal moment flustered me, then struck me, and then saddened me. This clarification seemed unconsciously necessary simply because I am openly in recovery from various mental illnesses, none with a predilection or history of violence.
Guns have always terrified me; I shot one once at a shooting range about four years ago. I did not grow up around guns. I have only vaguely considered becoming more knowledgable when a dating scenario had turned ugly enough that I briefly feared for my life. I do not own a gun and I don’t want to own a gun. I have friends who own guns legally and use them for recreational purposes. I don’t see them as any less or more of a person because of this. And yet, despite all these facts, I felt the need to clarify an innocent, off-handed remark because of our society’s favorite qualifier for a potential mass shooter: mental illness.
Beyond recent events, I attended and live near Virginia Tech, which is a fantastic university and community that has suffered an eerie trend of gun violence in the past decade. I could list my personal connections and memories of each of these incidences through the years. However, at the forefront of my mind is a regular afternoon. I can’t remember the season but I’m inside a building while editing a video project and surrounded by students toiling over their own respective homework assignments. After pausing from my screen stupor to look around, I blankly think, this would be a perfect place for a shooting to happen. It chills and sickens me. But it doesn’t surprise me. Because for some of us, the repercussions of gun violence never really go away. You never feel fully safe on campus or in that church or mall or on that street. You never forget, both for the memories of the victims and the selfish but ever-present question: when is it going to happen next? Not “if” but “when.”
While processing the recent events in Orlando, my friend Troy wrote an eloquent and succinct status update (no surprise, as he’s an intelligent and excellent writer) that I requested he post more publicly. I realized that if I were to attempt writing a completely independent article, I’d just end up inadvertently referencing his writing anyway. And he did post it right here (thanks, dude.) While we are two friends in recovery with some shared symptoms and experiences, our words are our own. But we share a same core belief here. It’s something that needs to be said and repeated and shared and said again until we’re all sick of hearing it: We, the mental illness community, are not your scapegoats for gun violence.
Not only is this association insidious and harmful in terms of stigma but just plain false. As Troy wrote:
Statistics show that the vast majority of people who commit acts of violence do not have a diagnosis of mental illness and, conversely, people who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
“People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime (Appleby, et al., 2001)
“People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population” (Hiday, et al.,1999).”
While violent crimes that are committed by people with severe mental illnesses do happen, they are notably rare. Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all (~20% of the population), 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics — but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse.
Assigning this blame is also just plain unhelpful to the larger problem. First off, the reaches of mental illness are just as vast and varying as physical illnesses- do we lump stomach aches and stomach cancer under one big scary label to serve as a spooky warning without a cure? No. But we’ve made it so easy to do that with mental illness. Not only does it give a blanket cure-all to the terrifying epidemic of shootings but it succeeds in “othering” the shooter. Rather than confront racism, sexism, media sensationalism, gun control, patriarchal institutions, fear-mongering hate towards the LBGTQA community- well, the shooter is just crazy. That lets us all off the hook for any actual change or problem-solving. It makes the shooter a grotesque and distanced monster when in fact, every mass shooter has been a human being. Promise.
And the stigma resulting from these blanket statements harms far more than just someone like me, who has had ample resources and opportunities to receive professional help. If there is one unhelpful statement a neurologically sound person can give, it’s the patronizing and overly-simplified: “Please get help.” I’ve previously discussed the lack of mental health resources in our current healthcare system so allow me to get a bit Charlie Day for a second: “Oh, get help? Just go get help? Why don’t I strap on my help helmet, and squeeze down into a help cannon and fire off into help land, where help grows on helpies!” Yes, mentally ill folks need to get help. The help also has to be available: both on a financial and environmental level, but also a societal one. Because, y’all, we really love to simultaneously demonize and romanticize mental illness. And that’s not making this magical help you’re referencing any more readily available. Another brilliant quote from Troy’s post:
We’ve successfully created a world so upside-down that seeking professional medical help for depression or anxiety is apparently stronger evidence of violent tendencies than going out and purchasing 7 weapons whose only purpose is committing acts of violence. God Bless America.
I hesitated for a long time over writing this because it’s obviously a hot-button issue. As it should be. These tragedies should upset us, they should start a conversation. We can’t afford to be silent and hopeful that without changing anything, the problem will magically vanish on it’s very own. I feel that these shootings often spring from a rebellion against societal progress, whether it’s a woman’s right to choose her sexual partners or the visibility and voices of minorities becoming more public. Thank you, Troy, for this excerpt as well, which I’ve bolded for emphasis:
Even when violence stems purely from delusion in the mind of someone who’s genuinely totally detached from reality–which is extremely rare–that violence seems to have a way of finding its way to culturally *approved* targets.
Sure, most white supremacists and hate groups aren’t “crazy” enough to go on a shooting spree in a black church, most misogynists aren’t “crazy” enough to murder women who turn them down, most anti-government zealots aren’t “crazy” enough to blow up government buildings, most anti-muslim atheists aren’t “crazy” enough to murder 3 college students, and most religious radicals aren’t “crazy” enough to commit mass murder in a gay night club.
The problem isn’t that these terrorists are crazy, the problem is that they are terrorists.
If you’re not comfortable with the changes required to properly heal and move on, then at least be honest about the causes. We, your mentally ill counterparts and coworkers and friends and family members and neighbors, are not the droids you’re looking for. We aren’t the suspicious gardener being unmasked by Scooby and the gang. And we honestly have enough to worry about in our everyday lives without shouldering an unjust burden. So please stop scapegoating the mental illness community for what we as a collective society are stubbornly unwilling to change.
Be kind. Live authentically. Practice gratitude. Hustle daily. Work hard. Stay humble.
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