Las Vegas shooting and mental illness

Now that the shock of Sunday night’s mass shooting is wearing off, the inevitable finger-pointing has begun. As usual, the blame is being laid squarely at the feet of the mentally ill.

As I’m writing this, there’s a commentator on CNN calling the shooter, Stephen Paddock, a psychopath, despite the lack of evidence that the shooter was indeed a psychopath or was afflicted with mental illness of any kind at all. Some people will say that one must be a psychopath by definition to perpetrate a mass killing.

That’s just not true.

You don’t have to be a psychopath to kill a lot of people. Presidents order it all the time. War heroes do it too. Soldiers are instructed to launch Tomahawk missiles and artillery barrages and drop bombs all the time. You just have to be the kind of person who can rationalize killing a lot of people. It’s context that determines whether a killer is called a hero or a madman.

The National Institutes of Health point out that there is frequently a false correlation between mental illness and mass shootings. Don’t take my word for it. You can read about it here.

Heaven help you if you dare to associate gun violence with guns, though. No one would ever think of daring to challenge the legislative agenda of the NRA.

Few groups are stigmatized like the mentally ill. I should know. I’ve been lying about it for years. There is little that is as humiliating as telling someone you’re mentally ill and watching them gulp, take a step back, and look at the hand they just used to shake hands with you like it’s covered in shit.

Am I worried about admitting it here? No one reads this blog. I’m still worried about it, though. Every member of a group affected by bias is afraid to come out of the closet.

I’m not the type of mentally ill person who is a danger to other people, but I’ve given up trying to explain the distinction to the people who gulp and step back. It’s true that I’m too sick to work, but it’s not because I’m likely to murder everyone I meet. Every day is a struggle to function in even the most minimal way. Some days are good, some days are bad, and some days are so bad I can barely move. Things that must be done don’t get done. That’s what it means to be ill.

It isn’t a lot of fun not knowing when your own brain is going to pull the rug out from under you. I hate living this way. I hate having to take all these pills, and I hate the fact that I’m dependent on them. As I look at the disaster in Puerto Rico, I know if I were there I would be in a lot of trouble once I ran out of my medications.

It is true that this country needs to have a conversation about mental illness and how it is treated, or not treated. The same people who blame the mentally ill for mass murder are the same people who defund mental health programs and actually advocate for insurance companies not to be required to cover mental health treatment. We need to work to destigmatize mental health so that the people who suffer from it can get the help they need. We need to stop telling depressed people to “cheer up” or criticize them for lack of mental toughness. You wouldn’t tell someone with Stage 4 lung cancer to cheer up and make it go away, would you?

This piece doesn’t have a conclusion because the conversation has yet to reach a conclusion. It is clear, though, that the mentally ill are going to have to advocate for ourselves because no one else is going to do it.



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