Words Mean Things: Mental Illness

Words Mean Things: Mental Illness

A few weeks ago, a teenager took an AR-15 into a school in Florida and shot up the school. Seventeen people died as a result; more were injured; all were traumatized. The shooter was taken into custody and has now said he’s “sorry” he did what he did, perhaps because he realizes it caused pain and suffering (the teenage brain is notoriously unable to process long-term impacts of decisions). More likely, he’s apologized because he’s in trouble and doesn’t like it.

The shooter was a white nationalist who had spoken about creating a school shooting before. He had a history of violence. Some reports say he was angry because an ex-girlfriend had started dating someone else. He was a Trump supporter. He was known to the FBI, who failed to follow up on a tip.

While the story has sparked massive outcry against the NRA, against the availability of guns, and about the need for gun control in the US, there’s another (tired) narrative that emerged as well: mental illness.

Stop Giving White Boys Passes

The media and society at large tends to have a problem when it comes to white male shooters: They can’t criminalize them. Take a look at a story about a Muslim or brown person planning or carrying out similar actions and you’ll see the words “terrorist” and “jihadi” get bandied about.


The word “terrorist” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, absent from the narrative when a racially “othered” body is replaced with a white body. Suddenly, the narrative goes from vilifying to sympathizing. “Oh, he was angry. Oh, he was isolated. He was bullied.”


Oh, he was mentally ill.


The effect of this construction is to excuse right-wing extremism, militancy, violence, and white terrorism. This is why it caused such a stir when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared an attack on a mosque in Quebec by two white supremacists to be terrorism. He called the attackers what they are: terrorists.


We have to stop giving white boys—white people—passes for behavior we pathologize in other peoples. If you would not suggest the Muslim jihadi was perhaps mentally ill to even consider joining the group, to strap a bomb to one’s self, then you cannot suggest a white man who picks up a gun and fires indiscriminately into a crowded public space to be so. You cannot say, “It’s different,” because it’s not. The intent of the act is to cause panic, terror, and strife.


That’s terrorism, plain and simple.

The Mental Illness Frame

Now, I have a problem with the “mental illness” frame. Trump and other leaders on the right have used it to suggest (and to a certain extent, pathologize) the shooter in Parkland needed help. If we’d been more careful and helpful, he wouldn’t have “slipped through the cracks” and this wouldn’t have happened. (We’ll leave aside the hilariously sad state of access to health care in America and the difficulty in obtaining any kind of treatment for mental illness, of all things.)


Suggesting the shooter was mentally ill is an attempt to humanize them. The left will often pick this rhetoric up as well, trying to derail arguments which dehumanize the shooter. If we’re unwilling to provide the same humanity for jihadis as angry little white boys in MAGA hats, however, then we cannot adopt the mental illness frame.


Yet many will argue we do need to be more compassionate and drop the dehumanizing rhetoric in both cases. And yes, perhaps people who decide to join extremist groups, who believe violence is the answer, who shoot up schools or drive trucks into crowded shopping malls are some kind of sick in the head.


But here’s the problem with that.

Stop Stigmatizing Mental Illness

Using the mental illness frame to talk about the perpetrators of these senseless acts of violence is demeaning and offensive to everyone else with a mental health condition. It perpetuates harmful myths about people with mental health issues being “crazy” and “dangerous.”

People with mental illness are often encouraged to be quiet because of the stigma surrounding it.

Can people with mental health issues be dangerous? Yes, certainly—particularly if we don’t have access to medications, therapies, and other forms of support.


Should we consider the role mental health plays in acts of violence like this? Yes, absolutely. I am not suggesting that the shooter or any shooter or that any jihadi or terrorist should not have their mental health evaluated or that it never plays a role in this.


What I’m saying is it makes it much more difficult for anyone who has a mental health condition to tell people about it, to avoid negative labeling, to get proper treatment. It stigmatizes mental health and drives those of us suffering underground. We don’t want to talk about it, because you’re going to immediately suspect us of being the next Parkland shooter.

Humanizing Criminality to Dehumanize Patients

In effect, what the mental illness narrative does in this case is “humanize” a single criminal while dehumanizing a good number of patients who do need access to support.


Think about it. What if someone said to you, “Oh, poor Jeffrey Dahmer, he was mentally ill. That’s why he killed all those people.”


Does that excuse the fact he killed people? No. Does it make him less of a criminal? Not really. Dahmer, in case you don’t know, murdered a number of people in the 1970s and 1980s, taking their faces off. He was a serial killer, and a downright creepy one at that. The case is a relatively famous one.


Now, did Dahmer have mental health issues? Almost certainly. Again, however, what we’re doing is suggesting we should have sympathy for the criminal—for a criminal who committed some very heinous acts—while simultaneously lumping everyone else with mental health issues in with him in the criminal category.


Have a mental health issue? Oh, watch out, you’re crazy! Gonna rip my face off like Jeffrey Dahmer?


The Real Problem

Mental issues certainly play a role in someone deciding it’s a good idea to take a gun and shoot their classmates. It can also play a role in someone deciding to strap a bomb to themselves.


Talk about mental health deflects from the real issue.


Some people will say that the issue is access to guns. In some ways, yes, that is part and parcel of the problem.


The actual root of the issue is systemic violence, unfettered capitalism, and toxic masculinity. That’s what these shooters tend to have in common.


The Parkland shooter was angry because his ex-girlfriend started dating someone else. From the images, it seems she started dating a “racial other,” which no doubt ticked the shooter off. He’s both racist and misogynist here. He believes it’s somehow his right to control what the girl does, and he doesn’t like who she’s dating.


He probably feels threatened and pressured by all this talk of minority rights. His masculinity is threatened by his ex-girlfriend leaving him, finding someone else. His whiteness—his supremacy—is threatened by the fact she chose a racial “other” over him.


I’m not sure where he fits into the capitalist order; clearly, he had enough funds to purchase an AR-15. His family seems relatively middle-class, at worst. Perhaps he has a job; maybe not. Perhaps he’s discouraged by the market and his prospects for going to school, getting a “good job” in an economy where those jobs are rapidly disappearing.


So is he mentally ill? Maybe. Is he pissed off and struggling with social expectations and cultural deadweight in a system designed to keep—and everyone else around him—down? Yup.


The gun is perhaps the immediate problem. Taking it away wouldn’t fix the issues of rage, of lashing out against an unfair system.

Stop Giving White Boys Passes

I’ll come back to my initial point here: We need to stop giving white boys passes. Isn’t that what I just did though? Didn’t I just seek to humanize him?


Only to point out that these angry “mentally disturbed” shooters are the product of a broken system. Yes, there are many other people who are oppressed—far more oppressed—by these same systems and do not pick up a gun or strap on a bomb.


That’s perhaps the primary reason we cannot give white boys passes on this behavior. Much as we can attempt to understand what’s causing the behavior, we don’t need to sympathize with him.


Can murderers be rehabilitated? Yes. Should they be? Yes. Do I think we can likely rehabilitate this fellow? As unfair as it seems, I hope so. So many school shooters commit suicide afterwards. Perhaps, as a survivor, he can seek to turn his wrongs into some sort of right. I don’t want to white knight him, but maybe—just maybe—he could be the one to reach out to other students who are feeling so angry, so lost, so dejected and violent.


We can listen to the survivors. We must listen to the survivors and their harrowing tales. But the kid who’s pissed off? The kid who’s already contemplating a school shooting, who glorifies this? That kid isn’t listening to the survivor’s tales with sympathy or horror. That kid is sitting at the back of the gym, contemplating. They’re listening—and daydreaming about how much trauma they’ll cause. How sorry their classmates will be.


That kid is listening to grief and sorrow and horror and thinking, “Perfect. I want my classmates to feel like this. They should feel like this. They’ll be sorry then.”



Back to the Issue: Mental Illness

We’re in the midst of a mental illness epidemic, so it’s time we stop fluffing off school shootings as isolated incidents of “crazy” people being “dangerous.” It’s time we started looking at the root causes of mental illness. Why are these kids so goddamn angry? Why do they think picking up a gun is the right answer?


There are literally millions of people struggling with mental illness on any given day—and the majority of them are not dangerous and do not engage in violence. This narrative sweeps that fact under the rug. It’s a shrug. It suggests mental illness is so difficult to control and recognize, so rare, there’s nothing we could have done.


That’s a bold-faced lie. We could start by working on gun control. We could start by facilitating better access to medical care, so that when someone is mentally ill, they can get an early diagnosis and treatment. Removing the stigma around mental illness to encourage people suffering to come forward and seek treatment would also be another good starting place.


Writing every shooter off as “mentally ill” and nothing more is a disservice to everyone because it’s doing nothing to fix the problem. And even if that problem is mental illness? We need to take strides to correct it.


Now. Twenty years of mass shootings in schools is twenty years too many.

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