On Mass Shootings, Mental Illness and More …

Crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Every time there is a mass shooting — and what kind of country is this where this sentence rolls easily off the page and reader’s back because such shootings are ridiculously commonplace — we start talking about people with mental health challenges. As a practical matter, we can be but so concerned because all we ever do is talk.  No proposals materialize:  not in response to the mass killings or in response to the many times that someone who has mental health challenges ends up dead after an encounter with law enforcement (see, e.g. the cases of Natasha McKenna and Michelle Cusseaux).

This cycle of dismissing mass shooting episodes as the work of people with mental illness is both dangerous and wrong.  It’s wrong because even as we dig further into a particular shooter’s background and discover that they did not have mental health challenges AND that there were motivations for the shootings, we don’t go back and correct the narrative. Neither do we dig deeper to find that typically, the perpetrators of these crimes are disaffected white males who feel wronged by a particular group of people (Elliot Roger blamed women who were not interested in him socially, Dylann Roof professed to want to start a race war), and therein lies the danger:  we repeat this syndrome where we act as if the tragedy resulted from the “one off,” action of someone with mental health concerns, and in so doing, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make guns less available, generally, and to challenge the dangerous and problematic notions of masculinity that often underlie mass shootings.

So, let’s change the narrative.  Let’s stop repeatedly going to a place of assuming some psychosis on the part of the shooter.  I spent a lot of time in a psychiatric facility when I was growing up:  my dad worked there, my mom volunteered there twice a week, and when I was not in school, that’s where I spent my Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons alongside my mom. There was one building that housed the “criminally insane.”  John Hinckley lived there for years.  But, there were many other buildings.  Translation:  the proportion of people with mental health issues who act out violently is a lot lower than we are led to conclude every time a mass shooting happens, and this baseless speculation about the shooter’s mental health begins anew.  We stigmatize without basis a bunch of folks who are already the subject of too much of it.  We must BE better.  We must DO better.  That means that if our mental health system needs improving — which it surely does — we need to do more than talk about it every time a mass casualty event happens, then let drop as it drops from the front pages of our newspapers or the lead stories on our favorite on-line reads. It also means that we have to do far more about the masculinity culture, and about the guns — have you noticed how many mass shooters have posted or taken pics of themselves with their guns beforehand. Not at a shooting range — as friends of mine have been known to do — but out in public somewhere or in their homes or in places that bespeak some kind of dangerous preoccupation.

When these events happen, and there is no response — beyond acknowledging that they have happened again— we subscribe to the doctrine of acceptable loss. Meaning it’s not a question of whether such tragedies will happen again, but when they will. Given the proliferation of guns and the zero percent likelihood that anything our government could or would be willing to do would begin with retrieving guns that people already had — unless they were in illegal possession, e.g. a domestic violence abuser who a court had determined should surrender his/her firearms — we must acknowledge that this tragedy will happen again.  But, if we can pursue strategies that would make this less likely to happen or make it more likely that interventions could be pursued before they did, I don’t see how we can’t opt for that.  Seriously. More doing nothing means waiting for another tragedy.  Are you ok with that outcome?  Because I know I’m not.

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