NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall recently wrote an op-ed for Huffington Post in which he elicited the standard battle cry for rallying an end to the stigma against mental illness. Citing his own experience being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder relatively late in life (not that surprising, I’ve heard this one is hard to pin down), Marshall emphasized the need for more mental health awareness. He called for research and acceptance of mental health disorders as diseases of the brain, not unlike a number of other physical maladies suffered by humans.
I don’t disagree with anything he’s saying but I do think the catalyst for which he felt compelled to write it is misguided. He basically reminds us all that when a mass shooting occurs in this country, as it so often does, everyone is quick to express shock, sadness and vows to change. He says we’re also really quick to blame the tragedy on the mental illness of the shooter(s). But Marshall then points to a vague statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health claiming, “only about 4 percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with a mental disorder.” He then goes on to ask how we can demand justice for the racially and religiously persecuted but not for the mentally ill?
Here’s the thing—I don’t think deducing that a gunman was suffering from sort of mental illness is necessarily an affront to all people who suffer from some form of mental illness. To many people, “mental illness” is a very broad term that can encompass a number of issues ranging from your standard clinical depression to full-blown schizophrenia. Maybe labels like bipolar and borderline personality are often what people conjure when they hear the term “mental illness” but what about the less extreme, not so blatantly obvious diagnoses? What about Sociopathy, Asperger’s or just generalized anxiety? Aren’t these also technically results of something being “off” in the brain?
In the aftermath of so many of these rampages, doctors, journalists, family and friends of the victims —the list goes on—have tried to uncover some sort of explanation, even though doing so will never necessarily take away the pain or heal the blinding grief. To cite just a few examples, they’ve unveiled clear evidence that the Sandy Hook shooter, the most recent Oregon gunman and the disgruntled, fired Virginia news reporter who shot his former colleagues all showed signs of mental instability. The Oregon shooter’s mother flat out said he was “struggling with mental health issues.” The young man who massacred students at University of Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger? I made the mistake of watching the taped manifesto he released prior to his rampage but you can read the transcript here and tell me if that’s not someone suffering from mental illness. I’m not a psychiatrist so I’m not about to give an exact diagnosis but it’s clear his issues went far beyond some bitterness about never getting laid or misogyny. Anyone who finds a way to legitimize killing innocent people as the only reasonable solution to their own unhappiness is NOT SANE.
Mental Health, Meet Gun Control
So regardless of how one defines mental illness or how those who have a specific type of it are personally coping, with perhaps a combination of evidence-based, medical or spiritual approaches, it is still a common denominator in many of these shootings. That and the ridiculously easy, non-regulated access to guns. Of course, alongside addressing mental health issues, I believe extreme revisions on gun laws (like maybe even amending-the-ole’-Constitution extreme) are crucial. But no one is “blaming” mental health issues like they’re always associated with violence. Mental illness doesn’t always cause violence, but violent outbursts of the mass-shooting caliber are often rooted back to some sort of faulty wiring in the perpetrator’s mind.
Marshall writes, “We need to stop equating violence with mental illness. The fact is, 88 million people in the US who suffer some kind of condition aren’t shooting up schools or movie theaters.” Yeah, no one said they were. That doesn’t mean that the ones who are committing these horrific, pre-meditated slayings don’t usually have attributes that can clearly be traced back to mental illness.
People Gotta Cope
So again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with Brandon Marshall wanting to spread awareness around the stigmas associated with mental health issues. I applaud him for starting Project 375 and I’m sure they’re doing great work. I think the more research we do and the more open we are about the reality of mental illness, the better. But don’t fault people for connecting the dots on a person’s troubled past behavior and their clear indicators of being unwell, in order to make some sort of sense of yet another gut wrenching tragedy.