Are We Turning a Corner on Discussions of Gun Violence and Mental Health?

Content note: this post discusses gun violence, mental illness, and sexually abusive behavior.

Like many of us living in the United States, I’m constantly bracing for the news of yet another mass shooting. As a human, I’m horrified by the rising death toll connected with guns in the United States — the vast majority of which does not take place in mass casualty contexts — but as a mentally ill person, I’m also incensed by how quickly people rush to blame mental illness in the wake of such events. When the internet started discussing the recent shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, which claimed ten lives, I coiled up with tension, fearing the inevitable rhetoric about madness and how “no sane person” would commit such a horrible crime.

What happened next honestly shocked me: Instead of immediately rushing to blame mental health conditions for the shooting, many people started talking about misogyny and toxic masculinity. For a moment, it felt like decades of activism around this issue have finally brought about change, refocusing the gun violence conversation on the real cause. My usual approach to making people understand this is a disability rights issue was upended: Instead of asking people to stop blaming mental health conditions for violence, I was struck by the fact that people weren’t rushing to draw a false mental health connection.

Historically, the aftermath of rampage violence like this focuses in on accusations of mental illness for the killer. Mentally ill people are less likely to perpetrate crimes but more likely to be victims, while relatively few rampage killers have actually been mentally ill. There’s not just a disablist component, though. There’s also a racist element to how people talk about violence: People accuse perpetrators of color of being “terrorists,” in an equally unfounded and hateful attribution of blame. In the case of white perpetrators, claiming that “mental illness” is responsible allows people to dodge hard conversations about social factors like white supremacy and male entitlement, and it’s astounding to see people openly confronting those in the wake of the Texas shooting.

The media is certainly playing a role. A growing number of major media outlets, including those that provide guidance on reporting, like Poynter and the AP, have started explicitly pushing back on mental health narratives almost as soon as news drops. The voices of people who are mentally ill are clearly being heard, even as people in the high ranks of government — many of whom benefit from NRA support — call for abridging our civil rights in the name of “public safety.”

Some have definitely brought up mental health in their attempts to explain away this latest shooting. And a lot of the reporting around the case has taken a misogynistic tone. The shooter stalked and harassed a female classmate who wasn’t interested in him, and some media outlets along with the killer’s own father have turned this into a story about “bullying” or “rejection.” This suggests she was somehow responsible for his decision to enter the school and start shooting.

It feels like creeping uphill towards progress — sometimes we make gains, and other times, we slide backwards. Some of that backwards slide includes the emergence of new inaccurate and hurtful rhetoric. People styling themselves as experts on “incels” — men who call themselves “involuntarily celibate” because they aren’t in sexual relationships and they want to be, and believe they are entitled to women’s bodies­ — are evoking autism and suggesting it is to blame for “social awkwardness” that makes it hard to find dates, along with hateful behavior. Oliver North blamed Ritalin, a drug used by some people with ADHD, for the Texas shooting. Mental health activists need to work in solidarity with other disabled people to ensure society doesn’t simply shift the blame onto another segment of the disability community.

It’s heartening to see a shift in attitudes that has been a long time coming.

The shooting took place in the midst of a larger discussion about so-called “incels.” It’s also happening at the time of #MeToo, where the consequences of unchecked male entitlement are coming into focus for people who may not have considered these issues before.

But disability rights activists should get at least some of the credit on this one. Watching mass shootings and subsequent commentary play out over the last few years, I’ve been struck by a slow move away from automatically attributing such violence to “mental illness.” That’s been a direct response to our work.

We should be proud of the change we’ve been able to create simply by refusing to stop applying pressure. This is a disability rights issue, in the sense that mentally ill people don’t deserve to be scapegoated for something that is not their fault. It’s also a larger social issue: If we’re talking about the wrong thing when we talk about gun violence, we’re not going to be able to stop gun violence.

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