What to Keep in Mind as People Speculate About the Las Vegas Shooter's Mental Health

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.

As we’ve continued to process the mass shooting that took place Sunday night in Las Vegas and learned more about the shooter, Steven Paddock, speculations and assumptions have made their way into the national conversation — and somewhat understandably. We want to know why Paddock did what he did to try and make sense of his actions. Most of all, we want to figure out how we can prevent this from happening again.

True to how the conversation typically goes after a mass shooting, Paddock’s mental health has been brought up extensively. This makes sense. What is “wrong” with a person who plans to take so many lives as meticulously as Paddock did?  What could he have possibly been thinking or feeling? Surely no one in “good mental health” (whatever that means…) would do such a thing.

Within this dissection of evil, the words “mentally ill” are thrown into the mix — not “mentally ill,” as in he fits the criteria for a diagnosis but rather “mentally ill” as in, there’s something “wrong” with him.

“He’s a sick man, a demented man, lot of problems, I guess. We’re looking into him very, very seriously,” President Trump said in remarks after the shooting. “We’re dealing with a very, very sick individual.”

When words like this are thrown around, it can hurt people living with mental illnesses who are statistically more likely to be victims of violence than violent themselves.

But speculation about Paddock’s mental health will continue. In less than a week we’ve learned Paddock had been prescribed anti-anxiety medication. Politicians have also weighed in, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who in response to the shooting has been discussing mental health reform. The mental health-related discussions have only just begun.

As all this talk about mental health, anxiety medication and “sick” people unfolds, here are a few things we should all keep in mind.

1. “Mental illness” is not a good predictor of someone becoming a mass shooter.

When people talk about “mental illness” in relation to a mass shooter, they’re typically describing a behavior they can’t comprehend rather than talking about a specific diagnosis or symptom of that diagnoses. Having a mental illness is rarely the sole explanation for why tragedies like this occur. Even if someone has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, factors like a history of violent victimization early in life, substance abuse and exposure to violence can be important indicators of “who” becomes violent — especially considering less than 3 to 5 percent of U.S. crimes involve people with mental illness.

This means we can’t stop a mass shooting by simply treating people with mental illness (although, of course, everyone who wants mental health care should be able to access it). It’s also not a matter of simply banning people who are deemed “mentally ill” from buying guns — or as the National Rifle Association has proposed, keeping a database of “the mentally ill.” Thirty-eight U.S. states already require or authorize the use of certain mental health records in a firearm background check, and those who have been involuntarily committed or determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others are already prohibited from possessing firearms, The Washington Post reported.

Even a more over-reaching and wide-spread “mentally ill ban” can’t replace real, comprehensive gun reform, especially when citizens can currently legally buy accessories that make semiautomatic weapons work more like automatic weapons. We need to remind people that we can’t use mental illness as a scapegoat or excuse to forget about other factors that may be at play.

2. We can defend people’s decision to take psychiatric medication while acknowledging there’s more we need to learn about its effects.

Reports show that Paddock was prescribed Valium, and while it’s impossible to conclude it in any way caused or influenced his actions, we need to be willing to talk about the side effects of psychiatric medications. It’s tempting to shut down any talk of violence and psychiatric medication by crying “stigma,” but the reality is, we can counter these arguments without denying there’s more we need to learn about the side effects of medication.

Psychiatric drugs have been found to have side effects related to violence, but their side effects are typically considered rare. Valium, for example, can cause increased thoughts of suicide and unusual mood or behavior. According to drugabuse.com, abusing Valium can cause “tendencies toward aggression and violence.” An Australian study found there seems to be limited information about the connection between benzodiazepine use (the drug class of Valium) and violence — but that, “comprehensive assessment and alternate non-pharmacological treatment options should be considered before prescribing benzodiazepines within primary care.”

There have been other studies linking different classes of psychiatric drugs to violence, with one study concluding that its data “provide(s) new evidence that acts of violence towards others are a genuine and serious adverse drug event that is associated with a relatively small group of drugs.”

I personally wonder if the fact that some studies like this show some psychiatric medication might make some people act aggressively accounts for the planning and thought it takes to construct such a terrible event as Paddock did. He booked a strategically located two-room suite and unloaded 10 suitcases with 23 firearms, a computer and video cameras so he could see people in the hallway outside. This is more than an “act of aggression.” There isn’t enough evidence to connect this kind of behavior to psychiatric medication.

That being said, while we can’t let the fact that the shooter was on psychiatric medication fuel anti-medication stigma, we can acknowledge we need to pay closer attention to the effects medication can have on some. We also need to make sure no one is given medication without proper monitoring and follow up. Not just for our safety but for the good of everyone who’s prescribed medication.

3. Politicians who only talk about mental health after a mass shooting should not lead the conversation about mental health reform.

We should improve our mental health system because we want people to get better care, not because we want to reduce gun violence. Politicians like Ryan, who advocate for bills that would take away health insurance from millions of people, should not lead the conversation about mental health reform. It’s like putting someone who’s a known supporter of less access to seat belts in charge of safe driving regulations.

We should be talking about mental health care access all year long, not just in the wake of a tragedy — and people with mental illnesses should be leading this conversation, not be an afterthought in our agenda to stop mass shootings.

And remember: if over the coming weeks, people say stigmatizing or demonizing things about mental illness, we can make our voices heard.

What else do you want people to remember about mental illness as this national story unfolds? Tell us in the comment below.

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