Mass shootings’ most invisible victims: the severely mentally ill. We are not the villains.
Three…. Two… One…. BOOM.
That’s about how long it takes for the airwaves to explode with language – from TV reporters, political pundits, victim families, and our elected leaders – which slander the mentally ill following mass shootings such as the one which occurred in Roseburg, Oregon.
You had Hardball’s Chris Matthews – the epitomic liberal, who theoretically should be the disenfranchised’s defender-in-chief – denouncing all mentally ill individuals as “nuts” whose civil rights should be obliterated.
When WDBJ News reporter Alison Parker was killed on-air in August, there was her father telling Fox News and CNN that evening:
“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about crazy people getting guns.”
Did you know the severely mentally ill are no more likely to commit acts of violence than the general public? Just 3 – 5 percent of violent acts are committed by the mentally ill1, and only 2 percent of those acts involve weapons2.
Did you know that, on the contrary, the severely mentally ill are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general public, rather than commit them? This includes victimizing ourselves – whether through suicide or self-harm3.
But the actual facts surrounding the mentally ill don’t really matter to pundits, family members, the general public, or politicians pandering to the gun lobby.
The facts matter a hell of a lot to me. Because I’ve been labeled “severely mentally ill” for more than a decade, and its mythical association with violence is a primary reason why I experience prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis; why I can’t get a job to save my life; why I live in poverty – despite holding college degrees and being a former, experienced journalist; and why I often want to kill myself – because society refuses to allow me to live a life with dignity or meaning, due to the opportunities I’m continually denied.
Research suggests mass shootings like those which took place at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Colorado, and now Umpqua Community College are increasing mental health stigma and reinforcing negative stereotypes that all mentally ill are dangerous and violent4. Research also shows mainstream media’s coverage of mental illness – including reporters’ tendency to focus on high-profile, extreme, or violent cases – plays a significant role in the negative stereotypes the general public harbors toward us today.5
This is not fair and it must stop.
People with mental illness have a hard enough time as it is: we experience disproportionate levels of employment and housing discrimination, among other things6. The incorrect belief that most of us are a public danger or menace – “time bombs” ready to explode in violence – plays a central role in the prejudice directed at us7. During the past four decades, negative attitudes rooted in these unfounded beliefs have only intensified, resulting in greater social ostracism8. Where once the “mad” were simply viewed as another form of human diversity, we are now viewed as almost subhuman, atavistic beings9.
Let me tell you something: Guns don’t kill people. The mentally ill don’t kill people.
People kill people. All sorts of people kill people. Period.
Gun violence of any kind – and in particular mass shootings – are tragic and I don’t exactly blame people, particularly victim families, for the unintentionally prejudicial language they use, nor the uninformed policies they advocate for, in efforts to make meaning of the chaos and heartbreak they’ve experienced or witnessed.
But I do blame the media for using – or failing to qualify or question – derisive language which lumps all severely mentally ill individuals together, and implies we’re all deranged, all prone to violence, and all should have our civil rights stripped. That is not the function our fifth estate is supposed to serve.
I protest the media’s persistent refusal to call such language what it is (prejudice), and to remind its viewers that terms like “crazy” and “nuts” are pejorative slurs whose use reflects and perpetuates entrenched, negative attitudes toward people like me – a group of almost 14 million individuals10 (1 in 17 Americans) who come in many different shades, and whose diversity of mind should be respected just as much as ethnic minorities’ diversity of race and color, or the LGBTQ community’s diversity of gender or sexual orientation.
Do you want to know how it feels when people talk about the severely mentally ill as Chris Matthews, and many others did, last week?