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To Those of Us With a Mental Illness, in the Aftermath of Yet Another Violent Event

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On Monday, I woke up to the news an active gunman was on the loose in my New Hampshire city. The man, donning a trench coat and long blonde hair, had shot two police officers in the early morning hours. Helicopters sliced the air overhead, while on the streets the city ordered a shelter-in-place for certain neighborhoods. Since the events of the crime scene occurred within a few miles of my office, many of my coworkers chose to work from home. I decided to go in.

Of course, these events are big news. Waiting for the bus, I overheard many people’s hypotheses on who the shooter was and why he did what he did. Among one of the most common hypothesis, in some variation of these words: “He’s probably some lunatic.”

In this quiet morning moment — the streets eerily empty from the lack of inbound traffic to the city — I realized after every violent shooting, I wait for the exact same events to unfold in the next few hours. I know likely a suspect will be apprehended and a mugshot will circulate television and the internet, with this sound-clip or a sentence of condensed information underneath: “The suspect appears to have a history of mental illness.”

This was the case today. The shooter had, in the past, been ordered a psychiatric evaluation and had since taken to Facebook to alert others some sort of tracking chip had been implanted at some point in a hospitalization. Stories like this make me want to cry.

Reason one: Two police officers woke up last night to report for their shifts and were shot. Their loved ones were caught off guard. Life is precious. Luckily, in this case, no lives were lost, but this, of course, is not always the case.

Reason two: The shooter is someone’s son and maybe someone’s grandson, cousin or uncle. Imagine watching through the eyes of a family member as these events unfold, while others, unbeknownst to your family member’s struggles, judge from the safety of the sidelines.

Reason three: This man was the patient of some conscientious mental health technician at a psychiatric hospital, someone who watched over him as he slept while preforming routine checks. He was also some kind teacher’s student, and this teacher likely worried about him and his future. These caretakers will see his image in the media and think, “What else could I have done?”

The fourth, perhaps selfish reason these events devastate me comes from that visceral lurch in my stomach when I first hear the news. As a person with a mental illness, I don’t want to be associated with these types of shootings. I have to fight the urge to declare, “Ugh, no, not again! We’re not all like this, I swear!” — especially when some news anchor continues to announce, “The suspect appeared to have bipolar disorder and have been off her medication.”

When stories about people with mental illness going on shooting sprees circulate, they weigh heavy on my chest, and I must assume, by extension, on many others’. Yes, I do read the things people say on the internet about mental illness as “an excuse.” Yes, I do feel people can be deeply swayed by illness, and I feel deeply for someone so ill as to act on violence perpetuated by their illness. And yes, I am devastated for the families of the wounded officers. I believe I can feel all these things at once. And I believe I can feel this way even — and especially — as someone with a mental illness myself.

It has taken me some time to understand what I will say next, and then to begin to believe it: Being a member of a certain group of people does not mean you represent every person in that respective group of people. This, when recognized, is a huge burden lifted from one’s shoulders. It is not an easy thing to believe, and it is not something I’ve fully come to believe myself. Instead, I work to recognize it every day.

And on this particular day, it means this: Yes, a man — who likely had a mental illness — was violent in nature. Maybe he was violent in nature only in his time of his illness, or maybe he was violent in nature by nature itself. Maybe he desperately needed more treatment or more support, and didn’t receive it. But no, not all those who have mentally illness are inherently violent in nature. We, collectively, are not this man. There are violent people without mental illness, and there are violent people with mental illness, and the same can be said vis a vis.

What a glorious, freeing feeling to know my diagnosis, the pills in my medicine cabinet, my psychiatric label — none of this is synonymous with any one person’s behavior. So please, don’t feel like this is the case, and don’t let these violent events bring you down for this particular reason, either. We, despite what society may view as our scarlet letters, are individuals. We cannot be clumped simply into “the mentally ill,” and our stories prove that more and more each day.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

Originally published: June 11, 2016
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