Social Justice

When we demonize mental illness after mass shootings, we increase the stigma around it

Guns are the problem. Not people with mental illness. We are not your scapegoat.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., where Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 students on Valentine’s Day, we’ve watched as President Trump, members of the GOP, and right-wing commentators go out of their way to ignore the fact that firearms – particularly semi-automatic weapons – are a major threat to public safety in our nation. Instead of proposing tighter gun restrictions, many politicians have attempted to derail the conversation around gun regulation by painting mental illness as the culprit in these shootings. This is dangerous for many reasons, but for the sake of brevity, I will outline two: first, the problem is, has always been, and continues to be guns and the weak, or even lack of, screening processes that allows dangerous people to access them. Second, and just as important, by increasing fear and hatred toward people with mental illness through use of rhetoric that correlates gun violence with extreme mental illness without exploring the nuances of the situation, we continue to stigmatize and invalidate people with mental illness.

Take, for instance, Tomi Lahren, a conservative political commentator, who tweeted that “This isn’t about a gun it’s about another lunatic.” President Trump has also voiced his condemnation of mental illness on Twitter, writing, “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed…” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has claimed that mental illness is often the main reason for mass shootings. Furthermore, many news and other media outlets have made it a point to highlight Cruz’s mental health.

First and foremost, although mental illness may play a factor in mass shootings, it usually is not the common denominator. Experts have determined that “less than 5 percent of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental illness.” The problem is that assault weapons are easily attainable, largely unregulated, and of course, extremely dangerous. America had more than 38,000 gun-related deaths in 2016 alone, and we account for 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings.

But besides ignoring the obvious, pushing the blame onto mental illness has devastating repercussions. It demonizes people who are dealing with poor mental health and associates grotesque acts of violence almost exclusively with mental illness. For many people, talking about their mental health is exhausting, nerve-wracking, or shameful. But when others – especially those who have little or no knowledge of mental illness – voice their baseless opinions about mental health and immediately correlate extreme violence with being mentally “disturbed,” we, as a society, lose ground in the discussion around and understanding of mental illness. We literally turn back the clock on productive conversations and instead reduce people with severe mental problems to “lunatics,” as Lahren so callously tweeted. We shy away from addressing a sickening problem head-on by dumping our grief and our anger onto mental illness.

As someone with mental illness, I will be the first to say that living with it is not fun. It is not a walk in the park for me or my family. For many people, myself included, finding effective treatment can be a nightmare, or at the very least, a struggle. And fearing being called “crazy,” “insane,” or “disturbed” can make the search for help even more difficult. We exist in a culture that already dislikes talking about mental illness, its causes, and its treatment options. Perpetuating an oftentimes false narrative that mentally ill people are responsible for mass shootings creates an environment that is that much more hostile toward people combatting mental illness.

Let’s be very clear. America has a gun problem.

America has a white male problem.

America has a white supremacist problem.

America has a domestic violence problem. 

America has a lobbying problem.

And yes, America does have a gross healthcare problem, especially when it comes to providing adequate resources for people with mental illness. But we also relentlessly blame the wrong factors and the wrong groups of people to avoid fixing the aforementioned problems.

People with mental illness refuse to take the fall for America just because politicians can’t stop taking NRA money. We will not have our health ridiculed and made a mockery of because you can’t bear to part with your assault weapons. We will not let you take something that we struggle with on a daily basis and use it as a way to make yourself feel better about the fact that you fine with mass shootings.