The deeply problematic conversation about gun violence and mental illness

As details of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida began to emerge, pundits and reporters quickly began to describe the shooter as “troubled” or “broken.”  Donald Trump tweeted that he was “mentally disturbed.” President Trump neglected to mention that, since taking office, he has repealed an Obama-era policy that would have made it more difficult for people with certain mental illnesses to obtain firearms — but facts have never been Trump’s forte.

As reported by The Atlantic, Nikolas Cruz’s diagnosis (if he has one) is currently unclear — but it is clear that he is a known racist in his community.

It’s deeply irresponsible, problematic, and stigmatizing to immediately label a mass shooter mentally ill before obtaining detailed information about their medical records. This rhetoric implies that mental illness and evil often go hand-in-hand, but that’s simply not the case.

“The concept that mental illness is a precursor to violent behavior is nonsense,” Dr. Louis Kraus, forensic psychiatry chief at Chicago’s Rush University Medical College told PBS. “The vast majority of gun violence is not attributable to mental illness.”

A study published in the Annals of Epidemiology showed that just four percent of all violence in America has been attributed to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression — the three mental illnesses that are most frequently cited as being linked to violence.

“Mental illness” is a convenient excuse for politicians who refuse to acknowledge that unfettered access to guns is the actual root cause of what has become a public health crisis.

Of course, no healthy individual carries out a mass shooting. But Emma McGinty, professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of a study that showed the news perpetuates the narrative that mass shootings are linked to mental illness, emphasizes that this doesn’t mean a person has a diagnosable mental illness.

“This is one of the hardest distinctions to make, McGinty told the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Anyone who kills someone else in a mass shooting scenario or otherwise is not what we would consider mentally healthy. But that does not mean they have a clinical diagnosis and therefore a treatable mental illness. There could be emotional regulation issues related to anger, for example, which are a separate phenomenon. There could be underlying substance use issues. There could be a whole host of other risk factors for violence going on."

There’s also a racial component to this narrative.

Before Cruz’s identity and photo were released, the “troubled” and “mentally disturbed” descriptions were already out in full force. My first thought was, “Well, the shooter was obviously white.” When people of color commit acts of violence, they’re labeled “thugs” and “terrorists.” We don’t hear about their past hardships, but there’s certainly been a lot of talk about Cruz’s difficult childhood and upbringing. A New York Post headline read: “Mom’s flu death may have sent Florida massacre suspect over the edge.” Can you imagine this sort of sympathy being extended to a non-white perpetrator? Me neither. false

Trump and the GOP are suddenly clamoring to express their concerns about the mentally ill.

It’s a pathetically veiled attempt to divert from the issue of gun control — but, just for kicks, let’s talk about mental illness because many of us do actually care about the issue.

Trump’s latest budget slashes funding for Medicaid, which provides crucial services to 70 million low-income and disabled people. Furthermore, Trump’s vow to “let Obamacare fail” will potentially deprive millions of people from the physical and mental health treatment they desperately need and deserve.

There is indeed a correlation between mental illness and violence: People with mental illness are at an increased risk of being victims of violent crimes. One in four individuals with a mental illness will experience physical, sexual, or domestic violence in a given year, meaning they’re at a 3.86-fold higher risk than people without a disability.

The mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators — and this includes violence committed by the police. Where is the concern for them?

And while Trump and the GOP feign interest in helping the mentally ill, none of them have uttered a word of concern for the survivors of the Parkland shooting. These students hid in closets for hours, terrified that their lives were about to end. They watched their friends and teachers die. Freshman Kelsey Friend recalled hearing a classmate crying out for his mother during the final moments of his life.

Witnessing such a horrific act of violence has put the Parkland survivors at risk of PTSD — an excruciating illness characterized by flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, hyper-vigilance, and withdrawing from the world. These students are heroes for raising their voices, demanding change, and calling out each and every politician who accepts money from the NRA. They have shown an incredible and inspiring amount of strength and resilience — but even the strongest people are susceptible to PTSD because, contrary to what some might say, it’s not a sign of weakness.

Twenty-eight percent of mass shooting survivors experience PTSD.

Yet, as the media harps on Cruz’s alleged mental illness, I’ve only seen a handful of articles about the mental health of the survivors.

In the wake of the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook, gun control reform needs to be our key focus. It’s time to make the gun show loophole a thing of the past, pass legislation that ensures universal background checks, and close the loopholes that allow domestic abusers to own guns in multiple states. And, yes, we absolutely need to get to the bottom of why the FBI failed to follow up on a tip that Cruz was potentially planning a school shooting.

Another crucial step is to demand that GOP politicians stop using mentally ill people as scapegoats to cover for their cowardly refusal to pass a single federal gun control law in the five years since 20 first-graders and six faculty members were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Millions of people, including a top GOP donor, have declared “enough is enough” and called for an assault weapons ban. It’s time for action and legislation — and it’s time for politicians to stop making sweeping statements about the mentally ill as an excuse for their unforgivable refusal to pass reasonable gun control laws that would save lives.