I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.
While I personally don’t believe there is any — ANY — reason what-so-ever for any person to have an automatic or semi-automatic weapon (really, what is even the purpose other than hobby/recreation, to which I say boo-hoo), I do believe that the way that we completely ignore mental health is at the root of mass violence, and not necessarily gun-control. From societal “bootstraps” beliefs (just read the comments for those — or don’t, as they are cruel and terrible), to policy that actively deems mental health a non-priority, we are harming those around us in ways we refuse to admit. Scientists around the world have ranked Mental Health as the #1 concern globally, and yet nothing changes. And then tragedy happens over and over again.
And I do need to say, I don’t think that anyone, particularly a person with mental illness, is inherently violent, or even necessarily more prone to violence. What I believe is that when we do not see mental and emotional health — and I have a wide definition of “health” as well, as it sure isn’t some definition in a book somewhere — when we do not see it as a topic of interest, and when we aren’t allowed to talk about things, and when we still live in a world where we feel our own is the only fucked up family in existence and every other family is perfect, shit hits the fan in the nastiest of ways.
There are several obvious problems with this, starting with the fact that the phrase “mental illness” encompasses innumerable types of conditions that are as similar to each other as Taylor Swift and Morgan Freeman. The fact that people treat the term “mental health” as though it is one giant indivisible blob of entity is problematic in that it is highly reductive, and very telling of their idea of how best to solve “problems” related to mental health patients.
Next, by using the umbrella term “mental health” to express their assumption about the gunman, these people - unintentionally or otherwise - paint a picture of all mental health patients being highly volatile, dangerous, and fully capable of committing cold-blooded murders, even if they may only have in mind a specific kind of mentally ill person, whatever the “specific kind” is. The wide propagation of this stereotypical image has very real and harmful effects on the lives of mental health patients. I know this because I’ve witnessed this discrimination, which runs from the structural level to the interpersonal level, first hand, on way too many occasions. I have seen how people treat my brother differently. It is as though they think he will do something scary or disgusting without warning, even though he shows no signs of harm. It breaks my heart every single time. I have spent my whole life trying to fight this harmful stereotype and stigma, and the further propagation of it by people who probably do not connect with a mental health patient on a personal level is definitely not going to make this fight any easier.
Understandably, people - including myself - are running high on strong emotions because of the compassion and sadness they feel for the victims, and bringing the gunman down is the most natural thing to do. Regardless, the careless usage of the phrase “mental health”in describing the gunman before any concrete evidence of the gunman’s circumstances is irresponsible and has wider negative consequences.
This essay is worth reading in its entirety. While it is probable that the shooter had some form of mental illness (episode) the blanket use of the term makes me, as a person who’s struggled with depression an mild psychotic symptoms, uneasy as well.
Also, even though these mass shootings are often done by perpetrators with some type of mental illness (even undocumented/undiagnosed/untreated) so many cases of gun violence are conducted by ‘healthy’ people - street violence, domestic violence, hate crimes.
Adding this to the conversation as well.