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We Can't Ignore the Fort Lauderdale Shooting Suspect's Mental Health

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There’s something we need to talk about it. It involves mental illness, violence and guns – three words that, if you’re like me, induce an involuntarily grimace when used in the same sentences.

But, two things are true:

1. People with mental illnesses are not more violent than the general population and in fact are more likely to be victims of violence.

2. This November, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago visited the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, claiming U.S. intelligence had taken over his mind and were forcing him to watch ISIS propaganda videos. He was brought to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. The police confiscated his gun. A month later, CNN reported, he got his gun back from police headquarters.

Just last week, he used that gun to kill five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida.

Right now, we don’t know what the mental health evaluation said and whether he’d ever been “officially” diagnosed with a mental illness. We know he checked himself into treatment voluntarily, but we don’t know his circumstances when he got out. We don’t know what kind of support he had from his family or friends or whether or not that would have mattered.

What I do know is that this incident is unacceptable, and I don’t think we should pretend it didn’t happen.

Too often after a publicized shooting, the “aftermath” conversation turns into a two-sided, black-and-white debate: you’re either in favor of tighter gun control, or you think the answer is better mental health services. Gun control is assumed to be the more “liberal” view, while conservatives like Paul Ryan have used fixing the mental health system as an alternative to fixing how we sell/distribute guns.

What has always bothered me about politicians like Ryan, who suddenly have something to say about the mental health community after a shooting, is that they speak as if the only pressing reason to fix the mental health system is to prevent shootings — to save “us” from “them.” Not because people deserve access to basic care, but to protect anyone innocent who might get in a “crazy” person’s way. In reality, it’s not that simple. And those with mental illnesses only cause 1 percent of gun violence against strangers.

To quickly distance ourselves from every act of violence perpetrated by someone with a possible mental illness also doesn’t tell the whole story. Because there is a connection between untreated serious mental illness and violence, especially when substance abuse is involved. But where does this fit into our “end the stigma” narratives?

I think it’s time to make some room.

What if instead of limiting our “after shooting” dialogue to gun control vs. health care, we opened up the dialogue that badass advocates are already having? We need to fix the gaps in our mental health system, not only for people who are asking for this help, but also for those who are more at risk for violence. Yes, we should talk about gun control, but instead of pushing ourselves away from people who quite possibility wouldn’t be violent if they were properly treated, what if we used their narrative to highlight the gaps in our system? We too often let the media run the narrative, splitting the issue down the middle. I’m wondering if there’s a way to paint a narrative that acknowledge violence, but doesn’t perpetuate stigma.

What if there was compassionate and adequate care for Santiago? What if someone made sure there was some kind of treatment plan/any plan before he was released from care, and before he was given back his gun? Can we have compassion for his situation without aligning ourselves with what he did? It’s also fair to note he was charged in a domestic violence case in last January. What if proper precautions were taken after that?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I don’t know whether “the right” mental health system could have saved him and the people whose lives were lost. But I do think it’s worth talking about when there’s such a clear gap — we’re not doing ourselves any favors by ignoring it.

Originally published: January 10, 2017
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