June 15, 2016

Connecting Mental Turmoil to Mass Violence in America.

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In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, we are reminded again of the disparity between ideality and reality.

Sadly, it seems incidents of mass-violence occur with more and more frequency each year.

In May alone, there were over 25 mass-shootings reported in America. In 2015, there were over 355. Whether an act of terrorism or the vengeance of a social pariah deluded by the prospect of infamy, with each new incident, we are liable to become a little more desensitized, a little more complacent, and a little more likely to regard this kind of aberrant behavior as commonplace.

With headlines of the Orlando incident flooding the media, the denizens of this country are again shocked at the realization that another human being could be capable of such an act.

If history is any indicator, the country will soon find itself polarized in the debate on gun control. Without fail, these incidents always seem to divert our attention to the mechanism—to the tool used to inflict such damage—and whether more lives could have been saved by more or fewer guns. But the gun control debate fails to address the deeper issue—it always has—because at the heart of the debate on gun control lies the same quandary: mental stability.

At the root of each of these unimaginable massacres is a mind so troubled, so divergent from the norm, that it has justified committing murder on a mass scale, often times targeting a crowd of innocent people unaffiliated with the source of trauma that might have incited the instability in the first place. In every one of these cases, the direct cause is a mentality errant enough to commit what the sane would consider unthinkable, reprehensible, utterly heinous and horrifying. Regardless of the weapons used, the problem begins with mental turmoil; it originates somewhere in the neurochemical discrepancy between perpetrator and proper citizen. It is time we as a nation begin addressing this problem at its very foundation. It is time we strongly consider the role of mental illness in mass-murder.

Over the last 20 years, the United States has witnessed dozens of incidents of large-scale violence enacted indiscriminately against an innocent public. From Columbine to Virginia Tech, Aurora to Sandy Hook, the DC Sniper to the Boston Bombers, and recently in UCLA and Orlando, motive seems to run the gamut from revenge against bullies to terrorism in the name of some deity or from martyrdom to notoriety and fame. Regardless of what we might call it, each of these incidents has one thing in common. Whether a deliberate act of terrorism, or an isolated incident of mass-murder, each incident begins as an idea incepted in a mind too unstable and too extreme to consider any other alternative.

We have seen a growing trend of mental distress and instability across the entire country in recent decades. Suicide is on the rise. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide rates decreased from 1990 to 1999 from 12.4 to 10.1 per 100 thousand. However, since 1999, suicide rates across all demographics have been consistently rising, peaking at 14 per 100 thousand in 2016 and marking a 30 year high. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) corroborates this data, noting that about 120 suicides occur each day in the US.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about one in five adults have a diagnosable mental disorder, and one in 25 suffer from a severe and debilitating mental illness like schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar, or extreme anxiety. Whether due to increased awareness, a higher likelihood of seeking diagnosis and treatment or a greater prevalence, the numbers indicate that rates of mental illness have been on the rise in recent decades.

Additionally, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2012 that nearly 60 percent of American adults take prescription medication, up from 51 percent in 2000. Of those taking medication, about 25 percent are for mental conditions.

It seems like everyone I know has been on some form of medication or another. From SSRI’s to MAOI’s, Prozac, Zoloft, Valium, Xanex, uppers, downers, all-arounders, one pill, two pill, red pill, blue pill—we are over-worked, over-stressed, over-worried, and a growing percentage of us are heavily medicated. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADD, OCD, schizophrenia, schizoid, bipolar, borderline, the list goes on and on and on. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the book psychologists use to diagnose mental illness, is on its fifth edition and encompasses a staggering 1000 pages.

America is no stranger to mental instability, yet rarely is the idea discussed in conjunction with mass-shootings. Unfortunately, there is a disparity in the way we address these two interrelated issues. The solution to mass shootings is often sought, somewhat sophomorically, in gun control policy, completely ignoring the role that mental illness plays in acts of such a grave nature. This is the misguided equivalent of solving symptoms while ignoring an underlying disease. You can’t put a Band-Aid on cancer. Instead, we need to redirect our attention to the root of the issue. By considering the underlying cause of these mass-shootings as an extension of our nation’s growing problem of mental illness, we will be more likely to garner the kind of support and awareness needed to promote better and deeper research into these kinds of problems—what causes them, and what we can do to ameliorate them.

Attributing these atrocious acts of widespread violence to mental illness is by no means an attempt to excuse the murderers’ actions. I am not equating mental instability with grounds for a plea of insanity, nor am I suggesting lenience in the judicial process due to mental illness. Rather, the intention is to increase awareness of mental disparity: its many forms and manifestations, its varying degrees and associated behaviors, its prevalence and its potential for serious, deadly consequences. The hope is that increased awareness will lead to better research, that better research will lead to a deeper understanding of the causes, and that a deeper understanding will help us curtail these kinds of problems at their source. The intention is to address the problem directly and hope that in doing so, we are saving innumerable lives—not only those of potential victims, but the lives of the troubled as well.

We can debate the pros and cons of gun control until we are blue in the face. We can speculate over the arguments of concealed carrying, a nationwide ban on handguns, or the number of rounds considered “reasonable” in a magazine. We can pour over statistics, make informed opinions, educate ourselves and elect politicians we feel represent our ideals. But none of that helps a man afflicted by burning anger, devoid of all compassion and hungry for revenge, feel any better. Gun control does nothing to pacify his madness. Take his gun away and he might use a knife. Take his knife away and he might use a fist. Take his fist away and he is still suffering from agonizing disdain and anger, the kind that makes him want to lash out at a world he deems unfair or broken or deserving of a hellacious act of indiscriminate violence.

To take a mad man’s gun away might save a life, but it ignores his anguish—the very source of his murderous intentions. Likewise we could take the noose from a suicidal patient, and we might succeed in keeping him alive another night, but it does nothing to make the patient feel any less like killing himself.

Yet it seems that after every shooting, we as a nation are so eager to polarize ourselves with the revival of gun control rhetoric. Our focus falls immediately on the mechanism used to inflict the damage, and we become so enraptured in promoting our political party’s position that we ignore the more important issue.

Gun control is only part of the issue; it is a question of means rather than cause. And what should we make of the implementation of standard household items, like pressure cookers, as home-made bombs? Surely we would not resort to a crackdown on casseroles across suburban America, debating whether Mom’s prized recipe should require a criminal background check.

The topic of gun control certainly deserves consideration. There is undoubtedly a place in American politics for discussing and debating the various viewpoints on different kinds of gun control. We, as responsible citizens, should familiarize ourselves with the issue, listen to various perspectives, and select political representatives who align with our beliefs and vow to represent us. But by using these incidents as a political platform to debate gun control, not only are we exploiting tragedy and using emotional distress to promote our opinions, we are also diverting our attention from the deeper issue. We are ignoring the underlying cause and robbing the issue of mental health of the consideration it deserves.

If we focused the same amount of energy on understanding mental instability, on researching ailments and alleviating them, on spreading awareness, on sympathizing with those in distress and working together to find healthy, viable options to relieve it, maybe we could prevent some of these mass murders. If we as a nation had put as much time and energy into addressing the causes and cures of mental turmoil as we have on debating gun control, maybe some of these people could have found the help they needed when their problems were still subtle enough to be curtailed.

The bipartisan political system will always keep us divided if we continue to make every incident a political issue. But these incidents of mass violence are tragedies we share together. For better or worse, they are instances of grief and heartache, fear and turmoil that concern us as a human race in its entirety, sharing time and place on this Earth.

We need to be capable of supporting one another through tragedy and triumph alike, regardless of political belief or party affiliation. To do that requires compassion and empathy, a willingness to understand an alternative perspective, the ability to consider and concede, listen and show respect.

Coincidentally, these are exactly the kinds of qualities we will need to begin addressing the issue of mental health in this country.


Author: Devin Mudcat Kelly

Image: Christiaan Tonnis/Flickr

Editors: Sarah Kolkka; Erin Lawson

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