If you have eyes or ears you already know there was another mass homicide this week in Charleston, South Carolina. A young, white shooter walked into a historically African-American church and killed nine blameless people. He’s been apprehended and his manifesto of racial hatred found on the internet.
As a journalist, I’m trained to always write that a person allegedly did a crime. Since this is my blog and I’m not paid to be impartial here I’m just going to work on the assumption that the disgusting maggot is the right maggot. After all, he apparently is seen on video footage taken at the church just before the gunfire began.
I’ve internally debated writing about this subject at all. On one hand, these mass murders are creating a legitimate concern for those living with mental health problems. On the other hand, I’ve read the attention media is focusing on these horrible crimes is spurring would-be homicidal asshats to copycat crimes. Yes, I said asshat. If the shoe fits, wear it. I’m no specialist in criminology so I can’t say if that theory is true or not. It seems plausible.
But from where I’m sitting, these asshats and the media, both legitimate journalists and pundits, are doing serious disservice to the mental health community. When crimes like the ones in Charleston, Isla Vista, and Sandy Hook happen, the media seem to immediately question the shooter’s mental health history. You know the internal system you have that gives you red flag warnings? This leap to assume criminals are mentally ill immediate raises my red flag. I have no doubt that some mass murderers are mentally ill but no more often than electricians, teachers, or doctors.
The problem as I see it is that we, as a society, don’t want to admit that some people are just evil. It’s far easier and quantifiable to say someone is mentally ill. There are tests. There are charts. There are doctors. As far as I know, there are no doctors with handy dandy tests to diagnose a case of evil. But evil exists. And I’m not talking about the bible and demons and possession. I’m saying that some people, for whatever reason, are wired to want to harm the world around them. Like autism, evil runs on a spectrum. There are people who kick their dog when no one is looking. There are people who abuse their spouses. There are murderers and mass murderers.
It’s also easier to blame mental illness for those evil actions rather than truly address the cancerous societal issues spurring them on. The Charleston shooter was deeply racist and supported by a culture that tolerated or even encouraged it. The Isla Vista shooter was deeply misogynistic. The Sandy Hook shooter looked to cause pain to his family and community. All of them had access to weapons that have no place being sold to the general public.
Racism. Misogyny. Hatred. Gun Control. No one wants to talk about these over the dinner table. We should.
At the same time, we should also be talking responsibly about mental illness. I live with severe, persistent mental illness and speak about it openly and publicly. I speak out because I know many people don’t understand that the face of mental illness is not only a homeless person talking to the air on the street. Many of the people I meet do not expect an articulate, intelligent, well-dressed young women with a master’s degree to have four mental illnesses. But I am the face of mental illness.
It is terrifying to me that some people, including legislators, would create a registry of mentally ill people. I realize their intentions – like trying to prevent suicidal people from having access to weapons – are good. But the ends to which that could be used are disastrous. Stigma is real. Stigma is alive. Even as a functionally mental ill person I have met with it in awful ways including bias in family court proceedings. I fear that if my name were ever put into a national database, I would lose many freedoms that my anonymity provides.
Even though I’m public with my illness, I don’t present it at job interviews, if I were buying real estate, or when I meet my child’s teachers. I don’t need to because it isn’t pertinent. Realistically, if a registry were made I would be branded in the same way as the Megan’s Law Registry keeps the public aware of convicted sex offenders. I have a genetic defect that causes my illness. I did nothing wrong. I committed no crime. The concept is as ridiculous and pernicious as rounding up diabetics, cancer patients, or people with blonde hair.
It’s not to say that crimes aren’t committed by those with mental illness. It happens. But no more often than crimes committed by those without mental illness. Studies have even shown that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than commit it. Rather than focus the spotlight on mental illness, I would like the media, society, and families to put the focus where it really belongs. Let’s attack hate first.