If you have turned on the TV, looked at the news, or even have gone on Facebook in the past 24 hours, there is a 99% chance that you heard about yet another shooting in a movie theater. During my lifetime, there have been multiple shootings or violence scares that have similar qualities. Many are committed by white males. Many of the weapons used were acquired illegally (or at the very least, the shooters should not have been allowed to purchase the weapon).
And finally, many of the shooters turn out to have had some form of mental illness that was known about or at least noticed by family/friends/coworkers/etc. In fact, many of these individuals have records of mental health issues.
So why is this a problem? What can be done and what should be done? I’m going to start of by answering my first question: Why is this a problem?
I have two separate answers for this.
First of all, these shootings increase the stigma surrounding mental illness. It seems as though many acts of violence have a direct correlation with mental illness but that is not true. Most people with a mental illness are not violent and do not commit acts of violence. According to a 2013 survey, an estimated 18.5% of adults 18 and older (aprox 43.8 million) had any diagnosable mental illness (ranging from anxiety disorders to depression to schizophrenia). There are millions of people, myself included, living with mental health struggles who do not and will not commit acts of violence. Even out of those with serious mental illnesses (an estimated 4.1% or 9.6 million adults 18+), the number that commit an act of violence like this is nothing in comparison to the number of those struggling.
When mental illness is attached to these acts, it makes it more difficult for those struggling to reach out for the help that they need. They may fear being judged or looked at as “crazy” or “dangerous”, which is so far from the truth. It pushes those who are already struggling in silence farther into a place where they may never reach out to get help. That leads me to my next point.
These individuals did not get proper treatment. Whether it was a lack of availability, stigma, or denial of a problem, they did not receive treatment. It was often apparent that these individuals had a problem. Like I said previously, some even had records of mental health struggles. After the shootings, family members or friends come out and say things like “he was consistently violent” or “he struggled with [insert mental illness here]” or even “he had psychosis or psychotic episodes”. The warning signs were obvious, but ignored.
We live in a society that often wants to ignore mental health and mental illness. It lacks the physical foundation that many other illnesses have (although many recent studies have shown that there is a difference in the brains of those with and without mental illness). People who struggle with mental illness are often discounted and told to “suck it up” or told that it is “all in their head”. For a rare few, this can lead to what we see happening all over the country.
So, what can we do? Better yet, what should we do?
First, I think that we should not be posting names/photos of the shooters. I have always been a firm believer that criminals who are not on the loose should not have the satisfaction of that 15 minutes of “infamy”. It leads to copy cats, especially if someone is highly unstable mentally. It is very possible for someone who has little regard for their own life/the lives of others to see a shooter getting press coverage and think “well that’s one way to go out” and therefore plan an attack of his/her own (note: I am not saying this is always the case but I do feel that it is a possibility in some situations).
Also, I feel like the laws to acquire a gun need to be tightened. Any history of serious mental illness in less than a 10 year span should prevent an individual from purchasing a weapon. I understand that this “violates the second amendment” but for the safety of not only others, but the individual, I feel this is necessary. In fact, I feel like a mental health evaluation should be required for anyone purchasing a gun. However, I know I am asking for a lot with this idea.
Next, I feel like there needs to be serious changes in the mental health care system in the United States. Mental health care is expensive for the average individual. Now imagine how difficult it is to access if you live in poverty. There should be more funding put towards creating easily accessible and affordable mental health care (side note: organization like NAMI are doing a fantastic job with trying to make this possible if you are looking for a cause to donate to/support).
In addition to making mental health care more accessible, we need to make it more acceptable to receive mental health care and to talk about mental health. It is pretty common to go onto social media or turn on the news and see people discussing a variety of illnesses. There are huge campaigns for major illnesses such as heart disease, various forms of cancer, etc. Now don’t get me wrong: these diseases, and the discussion of these diseases, are extremely important.
However, approximately 1 in 5 people will have some sort of mental illness at a given time. Yet, we really don’t talk about it unless it accompanies a news story such as a shooting or a suicide. Why do we wait until tragedy to discuss something so common? We, as a society, need to make it an acceptable thing to not be okay. We need to let others (and ourselves) know that just because you may be struggling with your mental health does not mean that you are weak, lesser, crazy, etc. We have to accept that this is common, that it is neurological and that it is treatable if you reach out and get treatment.
So, my advice to everyone reading this is to start talking about mental health. Learn some of the common symptoms of mental illness, be aware, lend an ear to someone who may be struggling, and reach out for help if you need it.
And as a final note: 1 in 5 may have a mental illness at any given time, but 5 in 5 people will have mental health. Be sure to take care of yours. Remember that Your Mind Matters!
all statistics used were found through the National Institute of Mental Health here
all opinions are my own so feel free to argue/disagree as long as it is in a respectful way