We Must Reconcile The Stigma Of Mental Illness In The Context Of The Debate On Gun Violence
In the wake of the recent mass shootings, I spent quite some time researching the topic. I will admit that I have compartmentalized the subject as it is difficult to think of the tragedy of these shootings and still be able to write about them. Yet, I have been profoundly affected and have been inspired to write, to put ideas out there for consideration.
My heart goes out to those in anguish as a result of the shootings, and I demonstrate my desire to help by writing these articles. Those who suffer in the wake of those mass shootings, they suffer on a scale I can hardly imagine. I believe that the best thing that I can do now is to offer solutions.
I have also noticed that since President Trump suggested that mental illness is the cause of the shootings, there has been a tremendous backlash. I think it’s time for some clarification on the relationship between violence and mental illness, with an emphasis on prevention.
As I was posting links to my articles on this topic on Twitter these past few days, I looked for hashtags that are relevant to the topic. Twitter has an autosuggestion feature that tries to guess which hashtag you want to use, or at least, it offers suggestions, and you can use your mouse or arrow keys to choose suggestions proffered. Here are some of the suggestions I saw:
The one that caught my eye was second from the bottom, #mentalillnessdoesntpullthetrigger. It’s true, mental illness doesn’t pull the trigger. Mental illness may leave one predisposed to gun violence, but mental illness, in and of itself, is not the cause of gun violence. There are plenty of people who suffer from mental illness who have not made a choice to engage in violence of any kind.
There is an old saying that is often used by gun-rights advocates that, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In a sense, that is true. A gun is an inanimate object until it is animated by the people who would use it. The same is true of mental illness. It is not the mental illness in people that hurts people, it is the decisions made and the actions taken by people with mental illness that can cause harm.
People without mental illness notice other people with mental illness and they sometimes do something about it to help. People with an awareness of their own suffering will often seek help, and many of them discover that they suffer from mental illness. When they seek help, they seek professional guidance, like a counselor, a psychiatrist or if they cannot afford professional care, they go to support groups. People who are aware of their mental illness and seek help, they are not the people we see in the news, for they are getting the care they need. They are taking responsibility for their actions.
The people we should be concerned about are the people who are unaware of their mental illness, that are buying guns, loading them and discharging them. I believe that anyone who contemplates violence, and/or has engaged in violence, is suffering from at least a mild mental illness. Those are the people we should be concerned about.
I think that President Trump is right on the issue of mental illness as it relates to gun violence. I don’t necessarily see mental illness as a cause for gun violence, but there appears to be a correlation between gun violence and mental illness. I just don’t think that it’s possible to possess mental health and have a desire to shoot someone, anyone. I think that once someone possesses a desire to shoot someone, that is a clear sign of mental distress and a lack of interpersonal skills for conflict resolution.
I’m not trying to use clinical language here, I’m really trying to be very neutral, to talk about it without judgment. To solve the problem of gun violence, we must reserve judgment so that we can better see what is happening. The moment we make a judgment of character, we assume that the next step is punishment, quick and severe punishment. I’ve never, ever seen punishment solve a problem. Ever. Punishment may give some people relief, but it doesn’t actually solve the root cause of the behavior that is deemed worthy of punishment.
Consider the following situation. You are teaching a young child to read. The child has just encountered for the first time the word, “ocean”, but he reads it aloud as “okeen”, and continues to do so until someone corrects him. I was like that. I read that word and sounded it out in my mind in elementary school just like that, and when I read it out loud, someone corrected me. Now imagine that the child repeats this mistake over and over, despite being corrected. Do you punish him? No, you continue repeating the word for him, sound it out for him, gently, and kindly until he learns how to pronounce the word properly.
But if the child breaks a lamp in the house, our culture teaches us to punish him. If the child repeatedly breaks lamps, our culture teaches us to increase the severity of the punishment until he stops breaking lamps (this is what we see in action movies, only with adults). Often we think that the child has a capacity to stop breaking lamps, but if that is true, we are making a character assessment of the child. Besides, if the child truly had the capacity to stop breaking lamps, or to avoid contact with lamps, he would have done so.
But what if the child really lacks the capacity to stop breaking lamps? Well, then you might work with the child to figure out why he breaks the lamps. You might work with the child to figure out what problem he was trying to solve by breaking lamps. You might secure your lamps until the child can get a grip on his problem of breaking lamps and accept that for now, he lacks the capacity to stop breaking lamps. Maybe he is accident-prone or has a hard time dealing with frustration.
Now notice the difference in how we perceive people. If we make a character assessment, we assume that punishment is an appropriate response. But if we look at behavior in terms of a lack of capacity or skills to do better, then we consider an entirely different response, to offer help or assistance, instead.
Note here, that I’m not advocating that someone who has just committed a mass shooting should be allowed to walk free and merely be required to seek counseling. Such a person should be restrained or stopped for our safety. Often, they are restrained by the police. Often they are stopped by a bullet. Note that the El Paso shooter was stopped and apprehended by police without injury, and subsequently interrogated by the police.
But that hashtag, #mentalillnessdoesntpullthetrigger, that’s an indication of shame and fear. Our culture has a lot of shame about mental illness. Our culture has a lot of fear of mental illness. We may experience some fear or feel awkward when we see someone who is mentally challenged, say, at the park or at the market. We’re being polite when we say that a person is “slow”. Our discomfort around a slow person is from fear. That person is different from us, and that person is unfamiliar to us.
I can recall the commercials on TV about the Schick Smoking Centers, designed to help people stop smoking. I can recall the public service announcements on TV, “Don’t take the car! You’ll kill yourself!”, to discourage people from drinking and driving. I can recall how long it took for mainstream American culture to finally admit that drinking is an addiction. That smoking is an addiction. And a decade or so later, we became willing to admit that addiction is a form of mental illness.
Once we were able to admit that addiction was a mental illness, we stopped making character assessments about people who are addicted. We stopped making moral judgments about addicts and saw that they needed help. We created institutions to help them. We honored institutions and organizations to help the addict.
Did you know there is such a thing as love addiction? There is. So it would follow that people can be addicted to hate, too. And once we admit that hate is an addiction and that addiction is a form of mental illness, then we can seek treatment without stigma.
I have known what it is like to hate someone. I have in the past hated other people before. I know of the idealization of hate. I know of the fantasy that hate requires one to indulge. I know that hate is wishing someone else would change more to my liking.
I also know that hate is incredibly time and energy-consuming, and counterproductive. I don’t hate anyone for any reason, anymore. I may feel some discomfort around some people, and I may dislike some people, but I do not let myself slip into hate. I just don’t have the time. I know that hate is addictive, it's habit-forming.
As we have seen in the last few weeks, hate can lead to some very poor decisions. Hate can lead to intense interpersonal conflicts, up to and including war. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of hate. And when I see people engaged in hate, I just sigh and hope that they will find their peace without hurting anyone.
Those people who committed those awful hate crimes, they’re addicted to hate. The American Society of Addiction Medicine offers the following definition of addiction:
All of the signs of hate addiction are present in the people who commit hate crimes. People who commit hate crimes exhibit a pathological pursuit of reward through their behaviors and habits. They exhibit a primary disease of brain reward and motivation. They have impaired behavior control, they lack impulse control and lack the ability to see problems with their own behavior. They lack the interpersonal skills needed to get their needs met without hurting themselves or others and have demonstrated an inability to identify and articulate their needs. Their behavior often results in premature death.
I think if we can admit that “hate addiction” exists, that is a good first step. I also think that now that President Trump is broaching the subject of mental illness, and the part that mental illness plays in violence, including gun violence, we can start to have a conversation about addiction to hate. We can identify people who are addicted to hate (like in a background check) and suggest that they get some help, without the stigma that we normally associate with mental illness or addiction. We can say that hate addiction is a mental illness without attaching a stigma to it.
If an alcoholic can get help for his addiction to drinking without stigma, so too, can a white nationalist for his addiction to hate.