October 9, 2017
Between the years of 2010 to 2013, I had trouble leaving my apartment. My anxiety, the mental illness I’d struggled with since I was a kid, had gotten so bad that I could not make myself get up and go to the grocery store to run very simple errands. After losing my job at the time, and realizing that life wasn’t actually supposed to be a waking nightmare, I spoke to my doctor and got on medication. I now live in a bustling area of Minneapolis, excel at my full-time day job, and maintain a busy and active social life. My mental health does sometimes still get in the way, but the number of good days has far outweighed the bad over the past four years.
My story is much like many of those millions across the United States, each of whom has their own struggles with different forms of mental illness. Some are severe, some are mild, and some exist somewhere on the spectrum in between.
But to hear politicians speeches following an act of mass violence like the shooting in Las Vegas that made headlines across the world last week, you’d think we were all a hair trigger away from snapping and taking down a mall full of people. “Mental health reform,” Paul Ryan declares from his podium following any mass shooting, “is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things from happening.”
As poignant as these calls to action may be, and as sensible as they sound to people untouched by mental illness, they often do more harm than good. Setting aside the fact that the current Republican budget would actually gut resources for mental health, and that in fact, Republicans under Reagan dismantled any semblance of a functioning mental health system, such calls ignore the reality of the relationship between violence and mental health. Namely, people who suffer mental illnesses are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than to commit said crime.
The impulse is understandable: Surely, a person who could stockpile 33 weapons and fire into a crowd of people must be insane. They’d have to be, to do that. But the fact of the matter remains: Stephan Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, did not have a diagnosed mental illness. The Pulse nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen, likewise did not have a diagnosed mental illness. According to a paper published in 2015 in the American Journal of Public Health, only 5 percent of people who committed gun violence between 2001 to 2010 actually had a mental disorder or illness.
But statistics haven’t stopped the narrative from barreling forward. Ever since new broke that the 2009 Fort Hood shooter was under evaluation for PTSD, people have spun a tale that veterans with PTSD are just a hair-trigger away from becoming a monstrous mass shooter. But such narratives neglect to point out that veterans are far more likely to turn their weapons upon themselves because of their PTSD.
The desire to pathologize violence allows a bit of comfort to people afraid to talk to about real, ongoing, societal problems with America’s obsession with guns. If mass shootings are merely a pathology, a symptom of a mental illness or a psychotic break, then we can prevent them by diagnosing and stopping the mentally ill, and we don’t actually have to seriously consider gun control.
But mental health reform would not have stopped Stephen Paddock. It would not have stopped Omar Mateen. Indeed, it would not have stopped Adam Lanza or Dylann Roof, whose easy access to guns without background checks allowed them to murder children and parishioners at Bible study. It would not have stopped these white men from abusing their significant others—a much more common feature amongst mass shooters than mental illness. It would not have stopped their access to semi-automatic rifles that were easily modified into functioning as fully automatic weapons.
Mental health reform, while crucial to America’s continued development as a country and as a society, is only ever discussed when we need an excuse to ignore and push aside mass violence. “He must be crazy,” we shrug as we stroll into a WalMart where high-powered hunting rifles and handguns are on display. “No sane person would do that,” we comment as we watch our friend’s open their gun cabinet with ten different hunting rifles. “We need to stop crazy people before they take it out on all of us,” we tweet quietly while a handgun sits in our bedside drawer.
The pathology here is not that mass shooters are violent and therefore, somehow, mentally ill, but that we so readily accept these events as part of the cost of living life as Americans. Perhaps the sickness is not with common mental health issues, but with a uniquely American obsession with bigger and deadlier weapons available at the corner store.