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The Question We Need to Be Asking Before We Blame 'Mental Health' for Mass Shootings

In the wake of any man-made tragedy, we find ourselves searching for answers. How did this happen? Why? Who could have done such a thing? How do we prevent it from happening again? We begin to dig through the perpetrator’s life in the hopes of finding an answer, some piece of irrefutable truth that will help us wrap our minds around this tragedy.

Often times a person’s “mental health” is brought forward and examined. Following tragedies where firearms are involved, I usually see people stating they’d like to see tighter background checks, including some sort of mental health history or exam. And I have to say, I find this very troubling.

Mental health problems are widely prevalent in our country. The phrase “mental health” covers a wide variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, grief, schizophrenia, ADHD and personality disorders. Very few mental health disorders make someone more likely to be violent. So when I see sweeping claims regarding mental health I have to stop and ask, “What exactly are you identifying as a problem?”

In America, gun ownership is a constitutional right. So the implication is if you struggle with depression or have ADHD then you are subject to have your societal rights taken away. Now, I don’t think that’s the hypothetical speaker’s intent… but that’s exactly my point. We can’t afford to be flippant or ignorant when discussing conditions that millions of people live with on a daily basis.

Mental health care and acceptance has traditionally been highly stigmatized and, while things are getting better, a great deal of stigma still exists. Many of us are working as professionals, advocates and clients to normalize mental health struggles and create an environment that allows for safe expression and support, but we have a long way to go. Many people are still very reluctant to acknowledge their own mental health difficulties, let alone share them with others or seek treatment. As we work to change the dominant discourse regarding mental health, careless rhetoric regarding the role that mental health may play in a tragedy has the potential to delay or demolish our efforts entirely. A person’s mental health certainly can play a role in their decision to commit tragic acts, but it’s one part of a very complicated narrative. But referring to “mental health” as a whole when we’re discussing one very specific incident that could possibly be tied to a very specific type of mental health problem is, frankly, irresponsible and reckless.

Stop for a minute and imagine how people would regard seeking treatment or publicly sharing their experiences if mental health = dangerous. Or if we set a precedent where your societal rights can be restricted because you’ve had mental health treatment. I encourage you to share your views and work to craft societal policies that reflect your beliefs. But I’m begging you, please be careful and nuanced when discussing “mental health.”

Getty Images Photo via Martin Barraud

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