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The One Thing Jimmy Kimmel Got Wrong in His Monologue About the Las Vegas Shooting

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

In an emotional opening monologue, only one night after the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history, a visibly upset Jimmy Kimmel addressed a grieving nation, expressing condolences for those lost in Las Vegas and refuting the idea that there’s nothing we can do to prevent these shootings.

“I’ve been reading comments from people who said this was terrible, but there’s nothing we can do about it, but I disagree with that, intensely,” Kimmel said. “Because of course there’s something we can do about it. There are a lot of things we can do about it, but we don’t.”

Although the events during the country music festival Sunday night, which left 59 dead and hundreds more injured, seemed to hit Kimmel particularly hard because he grew up in Las Vegas, his words and sincere grief reflected how many of us feel: heartbroken, frustrated and looking for answers.

His monologue was powerful, and I have a lot of admiration towards him for coming out as raw and vulnerable as he did in front of a national audience. But in doing so, he said a few things about violence and mental illness (quoted below) that didn’t sit right with me but do unfortunately reflect what a lot of people believe after such a tragedy.

In conflating mental illness and violence, Kimmel highlighted two common misconceptions that often come up after a mass shooting:

Misconception #1: Someone must be “mentally ill” to commit mass murder.

“It’s too much to even process, all these devastated families who have to live with this pain forever because one person, with a violent and insane voices in his head, managed to stockpile a collection of rifles, and use them to shoot people.” — Jimmy Kimmel

When humans witness horrific acts, we crave an explanation. We want to believe there were “violent and insane voices” in the shooter’s brain, encouraging him to commit such an atrocity. But here, we forget the purpose of a mental illness diagnosis. To say there’s something wrong with an individual who murders is fair, valid and understandable (no one would argue that person is stable and well), but someone doesn’t automatically have a mental illness because they do something horrible. Similarly to how we shouldn’t call Trump “mentally ill” because we disagree with what he says (there are plenty of other words we can choose…), we can’t call someone “mentally ill” for committing an “insane” act of violence. When we throw around phrases like “mental illness,” as if having an illness is an explanation alone, we’re typically not talking about a specific set of symptoms but rather a behavior we don’t understand — but desperately want to.

In one analysis, researchers found when news outlets and individuals spoke of mental illness after a mass shooting, they actually were associating the act of violence with mental illness — not commenting on the shooter’s actual mental health diagnosis:

Notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when ‘mentally ill’ ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.

Even if it was determined (by professionals, not via speculation) that the shooter was acting on a delusion and did fit the criteria for a mental illness, the fact that he has a mental illness is usually not an isolated explanation. As Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and one of the leading researchers on mental health and violence, told ProPublica:

We did a study some years ago, looking at [violence risk] among people with serious mental illness. The three risk factors we found were most important: first, a history of violent victimization early in life, second, substance abuse, and the third is exposure to violence in the environment around you. People who had none of those risk factors ― even with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia ― had very low rates of violent behavior.

Although we don’t know the Las Vegas shooter’s motives, as Arthur Chu pointed out in his Salon essay titled “It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males,” often times mental illness is used to scapegoat the shooter’s actual motives (a notable exception is violence caused by Islamic terrorist groups, in which we have no problem pointing to pure ideology). We don’t cry “mental illness” to explain atrocities coordinated by governments or other groups, he argued, as if systematic violence somehow makes “more sense.” He wrote:

Dylann Roof is a fanboy of the South African and Rhodesian governments. As horrific as Roof’s crime was, the crimes that occurred over decades of apartheid rule were far, far worse, and committed by thousands of statesmen, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials. Were all of them also “mentally ill”? At the risk of Godwinning myself, John Nash wasn’t the only person to think the Jews were a global demonic conspiracy out to get him–at one point in history a large portion of the Western world bought into that and killed six million people because of it. Were they all “mentally ill”?

Clearly people can do horrible things without being diagnosed with a mental illness, and having a mental illness does not increase your chances of being violent, but regardless, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 63 percent of respondents blamed a deficient mental health care system as the prime reason mass shootings in America.

Misconception #2: Keeping “mentally ill” people away from guns will prevent mass shootings.

“Common sense said you don’t let those who suffer from mental illness buy guns.” — Jimmy Kimmel

“If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful,” Dr. Swanson noted in his interview with ProPublica, “but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”

When we look at the risk factors for who goes on to commit mass shootings, it’s clear that simply banning anyone who’s “mentally ill” from buying a gun isn’t an effective strategy. “The risk factors for a mass shooting are shared by a lot of people who aren’t going to do it,” Dr. Swanson said. “If you paint the picture of a young, isolated, delusional young man ― that probably describes thousands of other young men.” Other risk factors include a history of childhood abuse, binge drinking and being a male — but you won’t hear anyone advocating to bar men from being able to buy guns.

According to the same analysis cited earlier, “Data supporting the predictive value of psychiatric diagnosis in matters of gun violence is thin at best.” In fact, it’s been found that psychiatrists using clinical judgment are not much better than laypersons at predicting which people with mental illness will commit violent crimes and which will not. “Gun control” can’t equal “blatantly discriminate against a diverse and relatively low-risk group of people” — especially if we’re not going to consider other risk factors.

In his monologue, Kimmel referenced that Trump signed a “bill that made it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns legally.” He’s referring to a piece of legislation which overturns an Obama-era regulation designed to prevent those with “severe mental illnesses” from buying guns. But in reality, the law required the Social Security Administration (SSA) to report those receiving disability benefits for mental illnesses to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System — so only people who get social security benefits from the government are included.

Targeting people with a mental illness who also receive social security benefits is too specific (what about the people who don’t receive benefits?) and far-reaching to have an impact. This also ignores that fact that less than 3 to 5 percent of U.S. crimes involve people with mental illness.

All of this aside, the most upsetting part about Kimmel’s comments are not that they provide misleading information about how we can solve the gun violence crisis in our country but the fact that this is perhaps the only time the mental health system will get attention on a late-night show. Yes — we need more accessible resources for people living with mental illness, but it shouldn’t take a mass shooting for us to come together as a nation and suddenly decide we care about those with mental illness. If our motivation to fix the system is that we’re saving other people from those with mental illness — not helping people with mental illness themselves — we’ll continued to have a misguided conversations about what people with mental illness really need. And right now, they’re grieving with us. Discussions about reducing gun violence need to continue, but they can do so without stigmatizing an entire group of people in the process.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Lead photo via Jimmy Kimmel’s Youtube channel