Mental illness: an easy scapegoat

It’s not always easy to start a conversation. Saying hello to someone with whom you’re only acquainted can be awkward, because it’s impossible to know how they’ll react. Hello can be difficult, but goodbye is simple. So when we’re uncomfortable, it’s much easier to end a conversation prematurely than to reach anything substantial.

Gun debates tend to follow a similar pattern: one side cites death tolls unparalleled elsewhere in the world, whereas the other emphasizes the constitutionally ordained right to bear arms in the United States. Often, they end in a so-called compromise where both agree that those suffering from mental health issues who pose a threat to themselves and others should be precluded from owning lethal weapons. It feels like progress; after all, according to the Los Angeles Times, 59% of those who have committed mass shootings in the US are mentally ill. Undeniably, there exists a link between mental health and mass shootings, so highlighting this seems like a solution.

But that statistic ignores than 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness, and the rate of mental health problems is only rising. If mental illness is the primary factor in mass shootings, almost anyone could be capable of committing such an atrocity.

Because so many commit suicide or are killed by police, mass killers can’t be fully profiled by researchers. Mental illness is a catch-all term that encompasses many disorders, but none in particular has been definitively linked to mass shootings. Rather, experts are more confident that shooters are often alienated and vengeful, but such a profile can apply to anyone, regardless of their mental health.

Yet though mental health is not the be-all-end-all in mass shootings, it’s one of the first topics mentioned after almost every one that makes national news. After the Parkland attack, the shooter’s mental health was immediately investigated, pointed to, and blamed for the attack. Similar narratives emerged after the attacks at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. Policymakers emphasize time and time again how dangerous and disturbed those with mental illnesses are, but even as they do, mass shootings haven’t stopped. No tangible solution has been put forth, and nothing has changed. Instead of stopping crimes, these kinds of comments only further stigmatize and degrade a group that is often downtrodden and neglected by society.

It’s easy to shift the conversation when it becomes uncomfortable. Why face a problem when you can avoid it? After every shooting, politicians spend countless time debating gun control, but in the end, the news cycle moves on and no legislation is passed. To be clear, this isn’t an argument for repealing the second amendment or implementing gun laws like those in Britain or Australia. But the conversation never even begins because it’s immediately clouded and redirected to a discussion of mental health. And while mental illness should be discussed because it legitimately endangers those who suffer from it, it needs to be talked about in a context that is centered around helping and accepting rather than isolating and vilifying 20% of the population.

School shootings are not inevitable; just because we have yet to identify a consistent root cause doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. Apps like Say Something and anonymous tip services can draw attention to warning signs that could otherwise go unnoticed. But it is a disservice to the victims of such horrors to pretend as though why such events happen is simple and can be boiled down to buzzwords.

Ultimately, mass shootings are complex, with myriad factors causing people to take the lives of countless others at a time. Mental illness is certainly an important part of the conversation about why they happen and how to stop them. It is not, however, the end of that conversation. It can no longer be the easy way out of what is a necessary and multifaceted debate.


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