Mental health services have become a very important part of the care we offer the children, youth, and families we serve. For the majority, their need is not an indicator of chronic mental illness but rather rooted in traumas that warrant specific therapeutic care. Such care can bring about significant improvement in well-being and functioning, allowing these clients to move on to be healthy and happy.
Each time these vulnerable clients are exposed to reports of yet another act of violence like the recent mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, they are further stigmatized by the speculation that the perpetrators of such inconceivable atrocities were mentally ill. In our efforts to somehow explain why such crimes are committed, we have routinely used mental illness as a “reason.”
A recent article in the New York Times addresses the issue by asking what the difference between being vengeful is and being mentally ill. An argument can be made that some of the perpetrators of mass shootings are psychotic, their actions triggered by some event that sets them off on a path of extreme violence. However, some of these perpetrators are not mentally ill but instead vindictive and angry, seeking violence to address a perceived wrong. While mental illness may be a factor in some shootings, the majority of those who experience severe emotional disorders are not violent to others and, more often than not, are more harmful to themselves than to anyone else.
Pointing to mental illness as the root cause of mass shootings has led some to suggest that those who have experienced such illness should be “profiled” and monitored. This suggestion would serve only to further stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness and make it even more difficult to provide life- saving services to those in need. The challenge is that mental illness is an unspoken disease — poorly funded and with limited access to services.
Mental illness is a reality, and although there is legislation that places it on par with other illnesses, those in need of care often don’t receive it due to the stigma surrounding the disease: a failure to properly diagnose the illness and a reluctance to adequately fund mental health services. They are at risk not of being the next mass shooter but of leading debilitating lives because they have not had adequate care.
What we often overlook in the discussion after a horrendous event that took place such as the one in Roseburg is that the United States is not the only country where people with mental illness live but the only nation that has such extraordinary access to firearms. In the majority of instances of gun violence, the firearms were purchased legally. It is disingenuous to suggest the cause of such violence is mental illness when in fact, firearms are so readily available.
Once again, sides are taken regarding access to firearms and the arguments have become routine. Once again, irrational reactions are raised, the vitriol gets louder, and the chits of influence are cashed in. Once again, polarization disables a reasonable consideration of sensible solutions to what is, by all accounts, an epidemic of gun violence.
For the lives lost to such violence and for all of us who are at risk until some solution is devised, this is not a time to be silent but to be engaged in the debate and demand solutions. What happened in Roseburg can happen wherever people have given up the hope of living without the threat of violence.