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No, Mass Shootings Are Not A Mental Health Issue

By Emily Cutler | Think Pieces | October 2, 2015 |

By Emily Cutler | Think Pieces | October 2, 2015 |

Huh. We made it just over a month since the last time I had to write about some sort of horrific gun death. So I guess that’s progress?

I’m not entirely sure how to find a new way to address a really familiar problem. We might all react with horror to the most recent tragedy, and offer our condolences to the victims and their families. But while they are in our thoughts, if I were in one of the 13 families that will have to bury a loved one soon I wouldn’t really give a shit if someone half a country away was thinking about me.

If I were cynical last time, I’m completely disillusioned this time. We can’t be shocked or talked into action. We, including those of us who would like changes to the current gun laws, just can’t get any degree of momentum. We’re stuck with the shitty gun deaths and guns accidents and gun laws. We’re the world’s most fucked up Postal Service and neither dead college students nor dead elementary school students nor dead elderly churchgoers nor dead newscasters murderer live on our TVs stays these enthusiasts from their appointed guns and rounds. For any number of shitty reasons, we just can’t stop the shootings. I might not be able to give up altogether on hoping for it, but I am going to give up on arguing about it.

So, attention, anti-gun control advocates: You’ve won. This isn’t an article about changing gun laws. I’m not going to fight you about that. But you’re going to start leaving mental health issues out of it. That I will fight you on.

Because claiming that this very specific type of gun violence is the result of mental illness both misses the overall point about gun violence and intentionally demonizes an already marginalized group of people who have nothing to do with this. It’s complete bullshit, and you’re going to knock it the fuck off.

And why shouldn’t we be talking about mental health issues when discussing a person who planned and carried out the murder of 13 innocent people? Clearly well adjusted people don’t don body armor, heavily arm themselves and walk into a school shooting, right?

Well …

Human behavior is extremely hard to predict. With all of the research done to date, even experts are unable to predict what someone would do or won’t do. In person assessments make a huge difference, but profiling on the basis of a few pieces of data is practically pointless.

Before you say it, you’re right. I’m not an mental health professional. But the person I’m quoting is. Dr. Sarah Mebane has her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, and has been a practicing therapist for 6 years. She was also nice enough to offer some credence to this argument with significantly more knowledge and experience and many fewer swear words than I am able.

So basically saying it’s a “mental health issue” doesn’t mean anything. Because even trained individuals looking for mental health issues in their patients have a hard time predicting violent behavior. But isn’t it better to be aware that mentally ill people can be violent? Then we’d be better able to anticipate a violent episode? Not according to the doctor.

When people discuss mass shootings and “mental health problems,” it can be harmful and stigmatizing for millions of people with “mental health problems.” How many mass shooters are there? How many people are estimated to be diagnosed or diagnosable with mental illnesses? What happens when the media links the two? Huge problems with stigma.

And exactly how many people could be unfairly stigmatized as being dangerously violent because they’re experiencing a mental health issue? Oh, only 1/4 of the U.S. population or roughly 61.5 million adults. Gun advocates don’t want to be seen as dangerous because of their hobby, but someone suffering through Seasonal Affective Disorder clearly needs to be labeled as a possible mass murderer.

Ignoring for a second the fact that people living with mental illness are already getting fucked over left and right (including significantly higher chances of dropping out of school, not having adequate health care, and becoming homeless at some point in their lives) even if mental health issues play a role in these specific kinds of shootings, it’s not nearly enough information to make any kinds of assumptions on either the shooter or the community on the whole.

Dr. Mebane again:

It’s like saying people with cancer die. Yes that’s true. But, lots of people with cancer don’t die. So what helps us explain the death cancer link? What type of cancer? How long have the had it? When was it discovered? How has it been treated? What internal and external resources does the person with cancer have to respond to their illness? What other health problems do the have? And so on and so on. Just saying that cancer leads to death (even if it is sometimes true) is an extremely unhelpful response to efforts to prevent death.

The difference of course is that we’ve actually gone to great lengths to improve the rates of surviving cancer. And we’ve done fuckall about finding a substantive link between mental illness and mass shootings. It’s not like we don’t have a model for addressing complicated issues.

Also, to carry the cancer metaphor further, IF there is a high risk factor of death — how can we help? IF someone with mental health problems is at high risk for shooting people, how can we help? How can we minimize the risk? In this case, perhaps it’s systemic things (like reducing access to weapons that facilitate mass death, ensuring access to good medical care for people with illnesses, etc)… Similarly to making policies like smoking needing to be outdoors or having legislation around cancer screenings.

So where’s the equivalent mental health plan? The plan to implement standard mental health care along with standard physical care? To properly fund organizations which seek to help (often disadvantaged) individuals with ongoing mental health issues? To recognize mental health experts not as luxury treatment for those who can afford it, but as practitioners whose work is integral to patients’ recovery and rehabilitation? If we can’t deal with gun laws because the real issue is mental illness, then let’s start fucking dealing with mental illness.

So where you at, gun advocates? You got the comprehensive mental health plan ready?


Quick tip, if the only time you mention mental illness is directly after a mass shooting, you don’t actually give a fuck about mental health.

So basically what gun advocates are offering is the argument that we can’t address an issue because the “real” issue is this over here. And they’ll demonize a large group of people while making their point about the “real” issue. And they won’t offer a single goddamn solution to any of it.

At the end of the day, gun advocates, this isn’t a fight you need to win. No one is coming for your guns, no one is implementing registries or crackdowns. We have all agreed that nearly unfettered access to as many guns as you want is the norm. I understand why “mental problems” might seem like the perfect argument against gun control. Only that’s not an argument, it’s a fucking scapegoat. And too many people in this country have been touched too closely by mental illness to let you turn people struggling into the fucking villains.

Special thanks to Dr. Mebane for her insight and overall loveliness. Sorry about all of the swears.