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When You Tie Shootings to Mental Illness

If you’ve read my work, you know I am massively for mental healthcare reform. Not just a little bit in favor, but balloons and blog posts on blog posts and boundless enthusiasm for it.

But you know when I’m really really uncomfortable talking about mental health?

Right now. 

Tragedies are horrible. They’re senseless.

School shootings are especially so. We hurt and we reach out and hug our children and try to make sense of everything. And always, always, we talk about schizophrenia, borderline personalities, bipolar disorder.

Adam Lanza’s mental health won’t be known. Not ever. There’s a lot of things we’d like him answer for–unclaimed Christmas presents and crying families and six year olds with cameras on them and reporters in their faces. We’d like to know why he did it. We want to know what was going on in that mind. There’s no explanation that will put this into perspective. Because, what kind of perspective could it be to understand what would drive you to kill children?

But I’m asking you–begging you, really, to not decide that Lanza had a mental illness. I’m asking you not to make “being a good person” the standard for mentally healthy.

Do not try to rationalize this away with mental illness. Stop talking about how it could have been schizophrenia, stop saying he had to have mental health issues. You do not know.

You do not know his state of mind. When you decide to armchair quarterback him, to stamp him with an “obvious” diagnosis, do you know what you are saying?

Here is a terrible thing. The only thing that could possibly cause someone to do such a terrible, tragic thing is to have This Disorder. Because only people with This Disorder could be so dangerous/awful/scary. 

And you, you people who want to look for signs of schizophrenia, who want to talk about how he ‘went crazy’, how he just needed medication, I want you to consider how much harder you are making it for someone to seek treatment.

I want everyone to seek the help they need, and I’d bet you do too.

I want the next person who hears things or sees things, or has invasive thoughts to reach out and have a place to land. I want them to be listened to and to find employment. I want their safety net to care for them and call on the bad days.

I don’t want them torn up with worry that they could be the next shooter, to isolate themselves because they ‘could be dangerous’. I don’t want their friends to worry for their lives. People with mental illness are four times as likely to be the victims of violence. They are more likely to suffer than perpetrate.

You want to care for the living? You want mental health care to be better? Stop making mental illness the scapegoat. You are causing stigma. You are making it harder. You are part of the problem. If today, seeing a therapist was free, treatment was covered as long as it was needed, do you think everyone who needed it would go? If the dominant narrative is that only ‘crazy people’  shoot schoolchildren?

I worked in a research lab developing and testing therapy for schizophrenia when I was 18, where in part, I interviewed participants and tagged along on treatment sessions. To this day, when I mention it–one of the best experiences of my studies–the common reaction is to ask about my safety. My safety from people who patiently let a teenager ask them incredibly personal questions for hours, who let me into their homes and lives. People with mental illness are not inherently dangerous. These attitudes are.

Mental healthcare needs to be better. That is a conversation this country desperately needs to have. Please don’t do it this way.

Note 1: If and only if a therapist who was seeing Lanza or family member  was to come forward and give his diagnosis, I would accept that. However, that doesn’t actually change the point about the narrative we spin about shooters. It’s dangerous and damaging.

Note 2: When you use mental illness as the reason for this shooting, you are ignoring a host of other societal factors that let him buy a gun, that let that gun he bought be a combat rifle.
EDIT: I know that it wasn’t his gun. This was written immediately after the tragedy. Yes, gun culture is still worth discussing.

Note 3: Assuming mental illness without any kind of evidence is also just plain bad skepticism. As if we needed another reason to stop doing that.