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The Mental Illness Blame Game That Follows a Mass Shooting

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This weekend’s been rough for all of us. We’ve watched in horror as families in Texas and Ohio have been forever changed from gun violence. We’ve mourned with them as our hearts break again at these senseless tragedies.

But like a well-rehearsed play, all the actors are ready with their parts of blame and finger-pointing, slinging it back and forth heedless of those of us who may be in the cross-fire, such as those of us with mental illness.

It sparks a lot of emotions when I hear this: sadness, shame, fear, but most of all, a fit of seething anger. You see, I’m mentally ill. Diagnosed with bipolar at 21 and living with it since, not always well, but life is not easy for anyone. The “living with” part of mental illness is often the hardest. People everywhere have their idea of what mental illness is and unless they are educated, and unless the mental illness is discussed openly, things can become very murky very quickly. There’s a horrible mystique about mental illness that brings to mind Stephen King-esque psychiatric hospitals. Other people envision “the mentally ill” as anyone with behavior that deviates from the standard norms of society, which can mean a wide spectrum of things, casting the net wide to include things like mass shootings.

I guess I understand. Why would anyone want to kill so many people? But where I think they are fueled by hate; someone else’s answer is mental illness. Is it a lack of argument or refusal to look at the dismal state of our union? Is it easier to pin it on the perceived helpless and voiceless rather than accept that we as a collective bear some responsibility in what is happening out there? We love, as a nation, to tell our millennials that they don’t take responsibility for their actions, but here we are, shooting after mass shooting, blaming and finger-pointing every which way from Sunday and never looking at ourselves, our collective selves as a nation, and truly seeing what we’ve become.

Denial much?

We have terrible, systemic problems right here at home that we refuse to voice or take the burden of responsibility for. Instead we turn around and point a finger directly at mental health. Is it easier to blame something you see as broken? I think it’s shameful. Still…  I don’t have the answers. I’m not a politician and I don’t want to be. But I don’t want politicians blaming a community of people who I belong to for something we have nothing to do with when there are a multitude of other, far more valid reasons for the bloodshed then us, who are just trying to make it through another day with this madness spinning around us day after day. Most days you never know we’re here. We’re quietly in the background. We’re co-workers, bosses, teachers, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. You’d never know we have this thing inside us, and maybe some of you would because some of us it’s more readily seen. But collectively, we’re not violent or attempting to be violent.

Have people with mental illness been offenders? Yes, of course. Does it mean that mental illness is to blame for mass shootings? No. But because of the history and the stigma already attached, the statement is enough to hurt an already embattled community. People are going to worry that the “someone” they know with a history of mental illness, who may have a rifle to hunt or a gun to protect themselves with, may “lose their mind” and go to the nearest mall and kill people. If politicians have their way, they may make it even more difficult for those us with mental illness to purchase a gun for protection. Should I be less able to protect myself because I have a history of mental illness? I don’t think so. You want to know why? The brain is the most fascinating and inexplicable part of our anatomy. There are so many things we don’t understand, that we can’t explain and that we have yet to learn. One of them is the unpredictability of our psyche. Simply having a mental illness isn’t a good predictor of whether or not someone will go on to commit tragic and violent crimes.

Ultimately, I feel that using mental health as an argument for why these shootings happened is a slippery slope. It is appalling to me that these politicians want to scapegoat people with mental illness simply because it’s easier than facing the more insidious issues right in front of us, that have been right in front of us for years. We have White Nationalists preying on our neighbors. Maybe it’s someone we know and maybe it’s someone who is psychologically vulnerable, but it might be the more complicated possibility that they are hate-filled and we, as a nation, are going to have to tackle this and have a conversation about what to do about it. We are going to have to listen to our neighbors who have experienced hate because of the color of their skin and we are going to have to accept the pain we’ve caused. We are going to have to look at our past and present mistakes and decide if we continue to make them or begin to make changes. We are going to have to decide if we want our country to have a soul, because somewhere along the way we lost it. Until we do that the shootings will continue, the blame will continue, those with mental illness will suffer the burden of blame and our country will be devoured by hate. Please don’t let that happen.

Getty image via z_wei

Originally published: August 6, 2019
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