We Need to Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness Every Time There’s a Mass Shooting

53dc9ad853199-fullI haven’t quite figured out how to say what I want to say here.  It’s just not coming out right.  So I’ll start by saying these three things that I think are absolutely true:

First, there is no excuse for the Parkland shooter.  What he did was evil and horrible.

Second, we cannot have a conversation about mass shootings that only looks at mental illness and not at gun availability, gun sales, or our culture that idolizes violence.

And finally, when we talk about mental illness or mental health in these tragic situations, we need to start being more specific.

Because not all mental illness is the same.  And we further stigmatize it when that’s (now) all that we talk about after a mass shooting.

In fact, there are over 200 different classified forms of mental illness.

And every time we have mass shooting in this nation, pundits and politicians and talking heads start pontificating about “mental illness,” as this generic, scary thing lurking in the dark corners of the classroom, of the internet, of the backstreets of America far from where normal, happy, and healthy people live.

And the problem with all of this is that many children (and adults), who would never pick up a gun and never hurt anyone, live with mental illness.  And more and more are being diagnosed with mental illness at an earlier age…using that term (because that’s what it is)…and so they hear all this mess and it heaps loads of shame upon them.

Depression is mental illness.

Bi-polar disorder is mental illness.

ADD and ADHD are forms of mental disorders.

Anxiety disorders are forms of mental illness.

Schizophrenia is mental illness.

PTSD is mental illness.

Dementia, even, is mental illness.

The Greek word for “desert” is eremos, which literally means “abandonment.”  And for many people, living with a mental illness already feels a bit like a desert experience, like you’re alone and abandoned and no one understands quite what you’re going through.

And to trumpet this as the cause behind these mass shootings, well, it’s just not the full case, and doing so just intensifies that desert experience for many.  It further stigmatizes an already stigmatized illness.

And if we can’t talk about banning gun sales because not all gun owners and not all guns are the same, then we can’t talk about all mental illness as being the same.

(And don’t even get me started on the phrase “nut job” being in the same sentence as mental illness…which I heard from one politician.)

And today I heard calls for people to report “trouble children,” and news reports continually use the word “loner” when talking about him, and I’m not sure what to do with that.  If more energy was put into befriending and including and lifting up these so-called trouble or loner children, we’d probably be better off.

Sure, we should report any activity, online or otherwise, that fantasizes about mass murders (which this individual did…and authorities knew about).  And of course if a kid is talking about shooting up a place, we need to tell someone (which he did…and the authorities knew about it).

But, if you ask me, instead of looking for so-called loners, look for kids (and adults) with unhealthy idealizations of war, first-player shooting game obsessions (especially if they can talk to others online without parental supervision), unquestioned racism and bigotry, and unaddressed tragedy in the home or in the heart…these are probably more accurate indications of brooding unrest than just being a “loner.”

If you ask me, we should start talking about how we, as a society, have become violence voyeurs.

All of this is more troubling than having “weird kids” being singled out. So let’s not go reporting every kid who is quiet in class, wears black instead of blazing colors, likes to write and read and play role-playing games just yet…

All of my church’s research on youth ministry hammers home that the more adults that are active and involved in a child’s life, the more that child will feel cared for and accepted.  It’s not just peers, and even probably not primarily about peers (though peer-love is necessary), but active adults.

Active adults who can change the narrative of “you’re strange” and “you’re trouble” into the real truths that point out the good qualities of a youth, that reinforce their strength and creativity and courage.

And you want to talk about courage?  Talk to a kid who gets picked on every day at school but yet gets up the next morning and goes anyway.

Look, your parents may have mental illness.  Your pastors may have it. Your children may have it. Your spouse may have it.  You ma have it.  Mental illness is not some thing that people bring into “normal” society.

Mental illness is part of normal society.

There is no excuse for what this individual did. And it is clear he was ill in some way. But we all have to look in the mirror, too.

Our society has to look in the mirror.

And until we can all come to grips with the ways that our society hurts where it should help, alienates when it should alleviate loneliness, and ostracizes our children at the fringes, we’ll just keep stigmatizing mental illness, avoid talking about gun laws, and wait around as one so-called “nut job” after another amazingly reenacts the same scene over and over again.

6 thoughts on “We Need to Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness Every Time There’s a Mass Shooting

  1. Beautifully written. Every scripture, every self help book stems from just a few words. “But of all these put on love” even when it is not easy. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Tim.

  2. Truth.
    As an adult who was a bit of a “loner” as a kid, I always feel uncomfortable when that’s pulled out as a sort of “mass shooter red flag”. So I had few friends. Being an introvert isn’t criminal behaviour, or even abnormal; why are we implying that it’s more a part of the problem than things like gun availability and a culture that idolises violence?

  3. Thank you, again, for thinking out loud with us. At a recent community meeting of a local clubhouse for people recovering from mental illness we talked about this stigmatized use of mental illness. And how it is a slippery slope into involuntary commitments! When what we may be talking about is a culture of violence (eg, driving like maniacs, on-line debates deteriorating into name-calling, sexual harassment, domestic violence). And using stigmas to “other” people we don’t like, and separate them – involuntary commitment, school to prison pipeline, etc. And it seems that maybe our work is something like what Paulo Freire did in Brazil, but was unable to see a path to do here in this country – that path of “conscientization.”

  4. Thank you for writing what many people are thinking! However, once done reading I read the “excavating fear” article written in 2014. It is sad that we as a society keep talking about shootings for a short time and then again, and again. But nothing really changes. Do we need to hit the rock bottom to wake up?

    • If we’re not there, I don’t know what we’re waiting for. Newtown was the horror past anything imaginable

  5. Thank you. As someone who has long suffered with mental illness I look forward to one day ending the stigma around those of us who suffer. If we had another form of serious long term illness we would probably be sympathized with, unfortunately, many of us are expected to “just cheer up” or pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. Something you would never tell a person diagnosed with another medical condition.

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