Mass Shootings ARE a Mental Health Problem
And saying so isn’t stigmatising the mentally ill or excusing violence
The culture war on gun violence has a depressing rhythm to it. Every time a mass shooting bursts its way onto the wider public consciousness due to being particularly gruesome or brutal or seemingly senseless — the discussion about the cause of gun violence and mass murder follows a particular pattern.
On one side you see the people arguing that the perpetrator’s actions were caused by mental illness. On another you see people opposing this — claiming that saying mental illness was a factor in a perpetrator’s violent crime is stigmatising to the mentally ill and that mental illness is irrelevant to the discussion. The reason for the second opinion, is because, (as is oft-repeated but bears re-repeating) the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and engendering fear against the mentally ill can lead to further harm to innocent people who are themselves victims of trauma.
In left wing circles, it’s taboo to suggest that mental illness is the cause of mass shootings (or violence in general). Indeed, many argue that instead mass shootings are a “gun control problem”, or a “white male problem”.
I saw this Facebook screenshot come across my feed, and it inspired this article, as it is so representational of this argument. I understand why the person who made this argument felt the way they did. And their feelings of betrayal and trauma are valid and deserve healing.
But nevertheless this argument is overly simplistic. It implies that all mental illnesses are the same or that the types of mental illness you can get aren’t influenced by the society and demographic you live in.
Mental illnesses are both biological AND caused by the environment you live in. Factors that influence mental illnesses include (note that none of these things always cause mental illness or cause all types of mental illness or are the only causes of mental illness, or work the same way in all people):
- genetics (certain genes influence one’s predisposition to schizophrenia, antisocial personality disorder, bipolar disorder etc although many of these genes are only activated with trauma and aren’t a given that you will get the disease if you have the gene)
- trauma (affects everyone differently, the same trauma may trigger mental illness in some people and not others)
- environmental toxins (for example, lead exposure has been shown to increase the incidence of certain mental illnesses)
- drugs (many drugs both prescription and recreational can trigger mental illness such as psychosis or suicidality)
- brain damage
So we have all these causes of mental illness, which almost always are in combination for any person with a mental illness.
Then we have a vast difference in the ways different people cope with their mental illness (which is influenced by their access to resources, cultural expectations, family expectations or knowledge about these resources)
- therapy (can help certain mental illnesses but not others, depending on the type of therapy, people may avoid therapy due to shame, denial or lack of access financial and otherwise)
- prescribed medication
- self medication
- addiction to distraction from the symptoms (ie gaming, social media, sex, shopping, gambling, binge eating, binge drinking, recreational drug use)
- community based healing (such as the 12 step program)
- talking to friends or family
- talking to people that can relate to your experience (online forums, which can be helpful — recovery forums — or make symptoms worse — pro-ana or incel forums)
Obviously the list above contains both healthy AND unhealthy ways to cope with mental illness symptoms. And someone will usually not choose just one way of dealing with it, but a mixture. Even those of us who did the “healthy” ways to cope probably also did some unhealthy coping methods at the same time.
Communication and self expression in mental illness is also a major facet of the mental illness experience. These modes vary and can include
- talking it out
- self harm
- suicide attempts
- risky behaviours
- destruction of property (vandalism, arson)
Mental illness also has a power dynamic to it. You usually feel disempowered or out of control during mental illness. The ways that people seek to take back power to themselves when mentally ill include:
- setting healthy boundaries and seeking to feel secure in themselves without the need for external praise
- choosing to see the good and happiness in the world, in defiance of their trauma
- choosing love and kindness to rise above the hatred of their abusers/bullies
- making art and creating something
- rebelling against authority figures such as parents or teachers by rule-breaking or talking back — or against institutions such as the government by breaking the law
- self harm
- eating disorders
- getting a tattoo
- taking drugs
- creating a fantasy life in their mind
- pretending to be someone else online
- masochism (transforming pain into pleasure to overcome pain)
- dominating people through fear
- influencing people through people pleasing
Again, people’s choices in the above will vary HUGELY. Some choices are harmful, some are not. Some choices lead to healing, some choices lead to exacerbation of the mental illness or victimise others.
ALL of the above factors are affected by one’s access to resources and the ease of access to each specific coping mechanism. Someone who is wealthy and educated might see a therapist, especially if they are taught that it’s not shameful to see a therapist. Someone wealthy who feels shame about mental illness and therapy, might instead self-medicate or cope through a shopping addiction, gambling, or an eating disorder. Someone poor who is educated, might seek help through self help or community groups. Someone poor who is not educated and feels shame about reaching out to people for help, might engage in arson or vandalism.
Shame. Trust. Relationships to peers and to authority. Knowledge of what is healthy and will lead to long term improvement in symptoms, vs what will make the pain worse. Belief in what can help ease the pain. Trust in the source of the knowledge. Access to resources, and skills to find and maintain healthy relationships. Power to act. Will to heal. Hope in the possibility that a better future is possible.
All these things come into it too.
Can you see how many permutations there are? The complexity that can arise from layers of factors at every step of a person’s mental health journey and lead to healing and ending the cycle, or disaster and inflicting trauma in another?
When we say a mass shooting is a mental health problem, (or indeed that ANY violence is a mental health problem, or someone who committed violence was mentally ill) we don’t mean that “mentally ill people are always violent” or that “violent people are all mentally ill the same way”, or that “a particular mental illness will always cause violence” or that “violent behaviour caused by mental illness is entirely outside that person’s control and isn’t also partly the choices they made in reaction to their symptoms”.
It is decidedly NOT saying a perpetrator’s mental illness minimises the harm caused to victims of violence. Or that mental illness excuses a violent person from the harm they caused or the consequences of their actions.
The level of moral culpability a perpetrator has for violence committed while they were mentally ill depends on several factors — their malice (intent to cause harm), their conscious reason for their actions (were they perceiving reality the way we do?), and their choices that exacerbated their mental illness (did they know their choices could lead to harm, such as knowing a drug could cause psychosis).
And the appropriate consequences for such a perpetrator depend on several factors as well — how much of their actions were influenced by their mental illness rather than other factors (such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, religious bigotry or homophobia), whether their mental illness can be treated long term, whether they can be rehabilitated, and what would best serve the healing of the victims and the wellbeing of the community.
So, are mass shootings really “a white male patriarchy problem”? Hopefully the above will show why despite white men having on aggregate more wealth (statistically) than Black women, and thus statistically greater access to therapy (one particular way of dealing with mental illness, which is not the most common means people use to deal with mental illness) — this does not mean that mass shootings are not a mental health problem.
There could be plenty of reasons why on aggregate mass shooters in America have a statistically higher likelihood of being white men than black women, and that violent criminals in general are statistically more likely to be men than women, and younger men in particular.
I see an unfortunate pattern in the left, where victims of violence, people who feel they have (and usually have) been betrayed by people and institutions, communities and countries they once trusted — loudly express their generalised distrust for large groups of people they believe are the cause of their pain. It’s all too similar to the conspiratorial thinking that leads to hatred and prejudice in the first place.
Men are not the problem. White people are not the problem. Just as women are not the problem. Minorities are not the problem.
Mass shooters tend to have similar personality profiles. They tend to not trust authority. They either didn’t have access to therapy, or they distrusted the therapist or the doctor prescribing them medication. They had a deep seated sense of shame inside which discouraged them from reaching out to family, friends or community. They were depressed or suicidal. They didn’t believe their life could get any better. They instead went to anonymous forums where they met other cynical and despairing people who believed the cause of their miserable lives was a conspiracy by a group of scapegoats. These people further made them believe that the world was horrible and nothing would ever get better. Their new community told them that the only way to get a moment of happiness and satisfaction in their miserable lives was to harm others and become famous doing so. In order to retain a sense of power, they wanted to inflict revenge on those they believed were the cause of their misery. They had access to guns. They didn’t have anyone in their lives that were close enough to them to know they were planning something like this, and stop it beforehand. Or if people did know, they didn’t take it seriously and act to stop it beforehand.
Only one of the above common elements is influenced by gun control laws. And while a mass shooter does feel hatred, often for a specific group of scapegoats, addressing society’s hatred against minorities by itself will not end mass shootings. Because a mass shooter’s journey to murderous hatred goes through MANY steps. Many that can be addressed far earlier in the process of “radicalisation” to violence.
Violence is a trust problem. It’s caused by a loss of trust, and in turn breaks trust. But preventing violence, requires building trust. Starting early on, in childhood. Parents, educators and community providing a safe space for children to grow and learn in an environment where they can trust and not be afraid that others will harm them.
Preventing future mass shooters doesn’t just involve laws on assault rifles. Many of them already exist, and it doesn’t stop the violence.
Preventing mass shooters doesn’t mean scapegoating all men, or all white people, engendering further mistrust between people because of their sex or race.
It will and must involve building relationships with people in our communities, and strengthening the relationships in our families. Rebuilding faith in our medical and psychotherapy institutions. Rebuilding trust in our secular and religious organisations, in our media, in our education system, in our government and justice system. Providing all with equal access to a diverse variety of evidenced-based ways to cope with mental illness, heal trauma, and maintain healthy relationships. Ensuring all feel empowered to express themselves, and safe to do so honestly, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone.
And finally, by providing compelling visions for hope in a better future, for healing and happiness.