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Mass Shootings Are Not A Symptom Of Mental Illness

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Mass shootings are not a symptom of mental illness. Mass shootings are preventable. Arguments stating anything otherwise are deflections out of self-interest and curtail the conversation we need to be having in our country surrounding gun regulations and banning assault weapons.

At this point, we’ve all seen the freely available information regarding other countries and their lack of gun violence. We know we don’t have to live like this, but we continue protecting our Second Amendment rights at the expense of innocent Americans. America repeatedly chooses gun rights over its people, and it doesn’t feel as if this is going to change. This decision was made crystal clear after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary: if we didn’t care then, at a moment when the most heinous act was committed against our youngest and most defenseless population, then we aren’t going to care now. If America is going to stand by this choice, I need it to do so in honesty. I need the government and the NRA to say what they actually mean, which is: We value access to guns, money, and political power over individual human life. As someone who has worked in multiple roles in the mental health field for almost a decade and as a person who suffers from mental health conditions myself, I can no longer hear the false claim that mass shootings are a manifestation of mental illness. This flagrant lie spreads misinformation and distracts us from what actually binds all mass shooting incidents together, guns.

The theory that people who struggle with mental illness are more likely to commit mass violence against others has been floated in the media since Columbine. Originally, this idea allowed people to digest and make sense of novel and unheard-of actions committed by our nation's youth. Attempting to make sense of a cultural atrocity is reasonable, however, this particular reasoning has been time and time again proven incorrect. People refuse to examine the legitimate reasons that mass shootings still regularly occur, because it would mean letting go of rights that we feel are god-given. We don’t want the precious freedom of the right to bear arms infringed upon, so the same awful event ensues and another story about a deranged, mentally ill shooter cycles and sticks with the public. Unfortunately, this blame has only further alienated people who suffer with mental health conditions, spread falsities, and hasn’t alleviated the problem. Multiple reports and research has demonstrated that those who suffer from mental health conditions are more likely to become victims of violence, not perpetrators of it. Those suffering from the most severe and debilitating forms of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders are actually 2.5 times more likely to be victims of assault, rape, and attacks compared to the general population. Throughout a lifespan, someone who lives with any form of mental illness is overall 4 times more likely to fall victim to a violent crime. By continuing to view people who are mentally ill as violent criminals, we are using a vulnerable population as scapegoats for a constitutional problem.

In the field of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V currently) is used determine a clinical diagnosis based on an individual’s set of symptoms. If a diagnosis is given, the DSM is then used to identify best treatment options for patients. The DSM is also allows professionals to examine overall patterns and outcomes of specific disorders. For example, common outcomes for anorexia nervosa are low blood pressure, low bone density, and kidney failure. Possible outcomes for schizophrenia are long-term auditory and/or visual hallucinations and possible suicide. Professionals need this information to develop treatment plans and understand how a diagnosis could affect a patient’s life if left untreated. As a behavior analyst working with children on the autism spectrum, I use the DSM-V for treatment planning and deciding how many hours of support per week my students and families need, as well as a resource to help parents better understand their child’s difficulties. Experts have been analyzing symptoms and outcomes of mental disorders for over a hundred years, and by now we have collected libraries worth of information regarding the human mental condition. Nowhere in this library can you find information pointing to mass murder as a symptom or outcome of any mental health disorder. If it were, you would have heard about it. Violence is a symptom of mismanaged anger, and anger is not a mental health condition.

Individuals who commit mass murders are often not just reported as being mentally ill, but are more commonly described as being severely mentally ill. Psychology, like medicine, is a field based off of data and research, and like any physical illness, the more severe a mental condition is, the less functional a person is likely to be. Individuals who are classified as clinically severe are more likely to have difficulties participating fully in their daily lives, and these individuals are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. People who suffer from the most severe forms of mental illness may live with adversities such as homelessness or declines in physical health, and are more at risk of being taken advantage of by others. These are not people committing violent crimes against the masses.

By continuing to view people who are mentally ill as violent criminals, we are using a vulnerable population as scapegoats for a constitutional problem. 

We do not have a record of individual mass shooters suffering from a specific type of mental illness, which is not to say these men were not suffering in some regard. What we do have is a record showing that the recent mass shooters are majority young, male, white, have a history of anger and resentment, and have access to multiple firearms. These are crucial facts that need more attention. Like medical illness, mental illness does not discriminate against gender, age, ethnicity, or race. If mass shootings were truly a symptom of a mental health condition, then we would see a more varied profile of shooter. As a behavior analyst, I spend my time examining and making sense of behavioral patterns. When I observe a problem behavior for a student, my first step is to figure out what is the most glaring element impacting the situation, as this is usually the most effective place to start. Once the problem behavior has been decreased, then I can examine other conditions contributing to the overall situation. In the pattern of mass shootings, guns are the most blatant part of the puzzle and the simplest component to change. To only examine one aspect of a mass shooting, like someone’s mental health standing, is dangerous and counter productive. By continuing to pick apart this unrelated aspect we are being distracted from the most obvious part.

Our country could absolutely benefit from access to better and more affordable mental health care, but this won’t stop individuals from buying shotguns, handguns, and the array of available semiautomatic weapons. We need stricter regulations on owning and purchasing guns and to get rid of the ones that can hurt the most people in the shortest amount of time. Reforming our gun laws doesn’t mean we don’t need to examine the entire scope of contributing factors to gun violence. This is a complex topic, but living with mental illness is not an antecedent or a crime. Every day, Americans with mental health condition fight to live healthy and productive lives. We are your neighbors, coworkers, friends, children, and family. Historically, the most harm we’ve caused is to ourselves. The end of mass shootings in our country will come from gun reformation, not scapegoating our citizens.

top photo via the American Psychiatric Association

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Samantha Mann splits her time as a behavior analyst working with individuals on the Autism Spectrum and writing primarily nonfiction essays. Her written work focuses  on the experiences of women, LGBTQ life, and mental health issues. She has written for BUST, Thought Catalog, Washington Post Magazine, and various other publications. Samantha lives in Brooklyn, NY with her wife. 

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