The Orlando Shooting Wasn't About Mental Illness, & Saying So Makes The Tragedy Worse
It's the same every time. After a white man opened fire at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and killed three people, House Speaker Paul Ryan said "one common denominator in these tragedies is mental illness," according to the New York Times. Then, just days later, after the San Bernardino attacks, he introduced a new mental healthcare bill, saying a "common theme" among mass shootings is mental illness. But, this time, after a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 50 people, injuring as many as 53 others, he better not even utter something about mental illness. Because, in reality, none of these crimes are about mental illness, and saying otherwise is not only false, but it also perpetuates stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous, leads to more crime against the mentally ill, and pushes those struggling with illness farther away from help.
(Update: The FBI has updated the death toll to 49 victims. The shooter was also killed.)
On Sunday morning a gunman, who has been identified as Omar Mateen, opened fire on Pulse nightclub, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. When police arrived, he ran into the nightclub, held hostages, and — for three hours — engaged in a shootout with police, according to USA Today. Police shot and killed him, but not before he had committed what is now the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, followed by Virginia Tech, which left 32 people dead, and the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, which left 26 people dead, according to the New York Times.
And people are terrified. The LGBT community is calling for action instead of just "prayers and thoughts," and those who practice Islam are begging people to turn away from Islamophobia, which has led to crime against Muslims spiking in the last year. People everywhere are demanding answers about how and why it happened, and, unfortunately, that has led some to ask for better "mental healthcare."
But I have a serious problem with that, because, as someone who has struggled with a mental illness, I see this rhetoric every time a mass shooting happens. I watch Paul Ryan get up in front of Congress and talk about how we have to get the mentally ill to doctors, lest they commit crimes against the rest of the world. And, each time, my disgust is outweighed by the positivity of a call for progress. Yes, mental healthcare in the United States is lacking and the stigma associated with mental illness prevents millions from getting the care that they need. But mental illness is not the reason mass shootings are happening almost daily; no, Ryan and others are scapegoating the mentally ill so that they don't have to address the real reasons for the violence: radicalism (in anti-abortion rhetoric, in Christianity, terrorism, etc.), misogyny, and relaxed gun violence prevention measures that are paid for by gun lobbies.
In reality, people with severe mental illness (whom people often think would have violent tendencies) are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of them, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes can be attributed to people living with mental illnesses.
A common argument I see after mass shootings is that you would have to be mentally ill to want to kill someone or to adopt extremist beliefs. But, simply put, that's just false. Criminal justice experts and psychologists have said that mass murderers are often not mentally ill at all, according to NBC News; rather, they are seeking revenge or some other kind of retribution.
Robert Dear, the man who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic, used distorted anti-abortion rhetoric as a reason to commit his crime. Where did he get that rhetoric? We hear it everyday when states are passing restrictions on a woman's right to abortion and saying that fetuses have a right to life. Eliot Rodgers, who killed six women in Isla Vista, California, was motivated by a hatred for women who wouldn't sleep with him, saying in one YouTube video that he "would slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see," according to The Guardian. A new Washington Post interview with the suspected Orlando shooter found that his ex-wife alleged that he physically abused her. Where did Rodgers learn his entitlement? We hear it all the time in rhetoric that women shouldn't dress or act a certain way if they don't want men to come on to them. We endorse that ideology when we call a woman a "tease" for not having sex with someone after flirting with them. Where did the Orlando shooter learn that it's OK to beat women? The fact that some states allow domestic abusers to get guns, or the fact that domestic abusers rarely serve prison time, doesn't help condemn his actions. A chemical imbalance doesn't create misogyny — it's a learned behavior that our culture has endorsed.
And, of course, there are other cases where radical Christianity (especially against the LGBT community) or radical Islam have motivated crimes, but radicalism is motivated by culture, choice, and indoctrination — not by mental illness.
So, in reality, the "common theme" that Ryan is looking for are cultural norms that we've allowed to persist — misogyny, violent anti-abortion rhetoric, violent anti-LGBT rhetoric. And, of course, these terrorists are always U.S. citizens who have been able to obtain weapons under relaxed U.S. gun laws. There are a number of problems the country should be discussing after mass killings — like why someone on a terror watch list can get an AR-15 or why a man believed he was owed sex from a "stuck-up, blond slut." Progress for the mentally ill and for treating mental illness is needed, but you don't ask for progress by telling 57.7 million people that the country is afraid they'll become murderers. The mentally ill are not the problem.