By Michael Witkovsky, The Psychiatrist Son
There are many horrible and awful things about school shootings. They are life ending for innocents, and life transforming for survivors. There is fear, helplessness, rage and profound sadness. These feelings conspire to activate us towards solving all problems that promote the probability of such rare events. However, one of the issues being put forward is not a solution to all but a major diversion tactic.
When these events happen, we are frequently, almost always, informed that the shooter was “mentally ill.” This was true even after the recent Las Vegas shootings were there was no sign or history of mental illness. Mental illness has become the scapegoat for the tragedy and evil perpetrated by gun related massacres.
The temptation to see mental illness as an associated cause stems from several of the perpetrators of such massacres having had a history of seeing a therapist or counselor, taking psychiatric medications, or having been psychiatrically evaluated. But, at the time of the shooting, almost all were functioning in their families and communities.
Research documents: Most people with mental illness are not violent
The research on mental illness and gun violence is that most people with mental illness are not violent, and most violent people do not have mental illness. The most common relationship between mental illness and violence is that persons with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the general population. And, of those persons with mental illness who do engage in violent behavior, it is most often proceeded by victimization.
The political and ideological forces that position mental illness as the commonality across all episodes of gun related massacres are wrong. It’s just not true that the commonality is mental illness. The only true commonality in each of these events, across each of these events, is the presence of automatic weapons, military grade rifles. Guns are the commonality, not mental illness.
The Myth of Mental Illness
But the myth of mental illness is continually presented. It is a powerful myth. It has power because we care about the mentally ill. It has power because we all know somebody who has, or had, a mental illness. It has power because we don’t want our children to have unproductive or unhappy lives because of mental illness. The myth is powerful because it focuses the fear we have from these events and tells us to place the energy from that fear to where we believe we can make a difference. But mentally ill people should not become accepted as the source of our gun fear.
Why are the guns themselves not the source of our fear? There are other myths about guns. They are offered by powerful social forces and tell a powerful story. Such as having a gun for personal protection is good thing. The data shows however that when there is a gun for self-protection in the household, its use is more likely to be for a suicide or homicide of somebody in the family.
So, these powerful forces create a different myth. They engage in the manufacture of fear of groups of people such as those who come from certain parts of the world to this country, those who speak certain languages, those who practice certain religions, and those who have certain skin color. This fear mongering plays well with several policy threads in our current government. Most notably are the issues of immigration. Guns are positioned, especially military grade guns, for our protection from these other groups of people.
Fear Mongering Doesn’t Help
The manufactured connection between mental illness and gun violence creates another separate group of our citizens, known by a medical problem, and they become the source of our fear.
Of all the damage that this fear mongering does, the most insidious is when it makes us afraid of our own children. It makes us afraid that if they have mental health issue, they will become someone who massacres others in school. It makes us afraid of other people’s children. If we know that a neighbor’s child has been hospitalized because of a suicide attempt, or taking medications for depression, we will then worry forever if they will shoot up the school. It is likely that we will then abandon, ignore, circumscribe or otherwise diminish the youth with mental illness. It is in this isolation, denigration and loneliness where we frequently find the substance that feeds deviant behaviors such as school massacres.
The commonality is guns. We should not be wrestling with being fearful of our children; we need to be resolute and fearless in removing guns.