Dear America, Mental Illness Is Not the Problem
Following the most recent mass shootings in Gilroy, CA, El Paso, TX, Dayton, OH and Brooklyn, NY, there was a renewed focus on mental health. Lawmakers, including the President, implicated mental illness for these acts of hatred and terrorism. Numerous studies that show mental illness accounts for a “relatively small percentage” of violent crimes. Doctors repeatedly assert that the link between mental illness to mass shootings is unfounded. Nevertheless, politicians and swaths of Americans continue to blame the mentally ill.
Mental illness is a broad spectrum and includes disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. When you point the finger at the mentally ill, you are looking to one in five Americans. You include coworkers, friends, neighbors, veterans and upstanding members of the community in your indictment. The scapegoating conflates mental illness with hatred, indifference towards others, intolerance and bigotry.
When you are speaking about “the mentally ill,” you are talking about me.
I am a loving mother, a devoted wife, a PTA parent, a dedicated volunteer, an educational advocate, a writer, a contributing member of my community; and I am mentally ill. I have suffered in private for more than half my life, afraid to speak openly due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. I can’t afford to be silent any longer. My fellow Americans are dying from mass shootings in record numbers. That is more terrifying than the stigma I face in my announcement. You are talking about me, America, and I will not hide nor internalize the widely held belief that the mentally ill are violent. I can only hope my disclosure will help others.
Outing myself as mentally ill opens me up to stigma. As a person with mental illness, I am more likely to experience job discrimination or encounter questions about my parenting abilities. I am more likely to be seen as unpredictable or potentially violent just for having disclosed my mental illness. When, in reality, none of this is fact or even based on reliable statistics. As one of the more than 44 million adults who have a mental illness, I am 2.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than others. Millions of Americans go without the treatment they need due to stigma and lack of mental health resources. I am one of the lucky minority (40%) with mental illness to receive mental health services. Increasing mental health service availability is much needed, but it will not solve the problem of stigma. We are stigmatized, victimized and scapegoated because America cannot look itself in the mirror. It is this very scapegoating and indifference towards others that is at the heart of the issue.
If it is not the mentally ill as scapegoats, then it is the immigrant, the Muslim, the person of color, the LGBTQ+ person. Indifference, intolerance and hate are rampant. These are the drivers of violence. As Americans, we are ever more isolated. We retreat to our bubbles of comfort scrolling through our single viewpoint feed. We rail against the other — that with which we do not identify. We invest in blaming others because it is too difficult to acknowledge the seeds of indifference, intolerance and hate that lie within us. When we blame mental illness, we make the seeds “other than” and reassure ourselves that we are not part of the problem. We erroneously think if we can treat the mentally ill, we can eradicate the threat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Until and unless we confront the hatred, intolerance and indifference that resides in each of us, no matter how small, we will continue to seek scapegoats. We do not want to accept that we may, no matter how seemingly different, have something in common with a mass shooter. At the root of hatred, intolerance and indifference is fear. We are being instructed to fear the wrong thing. When we fear the “other,” the “not me,” it breeds stigma, discrimination and violence. The cure is to face each other, get curious, reach across the aisle and learn more from those with whom we hold different viewpoints.
Without each of us stepping up to do our part, confront our fears and value those who hold different viewpoints, we will never reach a solution. Lawmakers have proposed gun restrictions, background checks, video game reform, expansion of mental health treatment or a combination of the above as solutions. Nevertheless, these are only stop-gap measures if we do not confront our ills.
We must, above all us, learn how to care for one another again; even if we disagree. The rest will follow.
A Concerned Citizen
Photo by Candice Picard on Unsplash