There's Nothing Wrong with Saying Mass Shooters Are Mentally Ill

There’s Nothing Wrong with Saying Mass Shooters Are Mentally Ill

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This post was originally published on October 16, 2015.

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?

Misplaced Offense

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.

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3 Comments

  1. i understand what you are saying and i agree there has to be something wrong with someone who kills another person for no apparent reason. i think that goes without saying. however, precisely because the term “mentally ill” is so broad, so vague, it does stigmatize anyone who is suffering from any sort of mental illness. they are less likely to come forward and seek help or to talk about it openly if people are going to hear “mentally ill” and think “violence”.
    i’ve suffered and been treated for an array of mental illnesses most of my life. every time one of these shootings happens and i hear people say we’ve got to do something about those people who are mentally ill, it gives me pause. it makes me re-think my willingness to put it out there. i fear the stigma. it silences me, if only for a little while.
    i agree there is a problem and it is multi faceted. but i’m not convinced calling those who do commit these terrible acts something as broad as “mentally ill” is the answer. i’m not sure what the answer is. but i do know that the more stigma there is surrounding being mentally ill, the less likely those who need help are to come forward.

  2. Totally brilliant, Mary Patterson. Almost precisely my own take on the matter, and you argue it well. You are right about mental illness being a hugely broad term. sociopathy, psychopathy…also mental illness. As someone with bipolar disorder, and as someone with a schizophrenic sister, I’m not offended by stating the truth of the matter. Most mentally ill people are not violent, including psychopaths. It’s a very small percentage. Still, kid who goes on a shooting spree, or even terrorists who have no problem blasting people, aren’t all there. And yes, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enforce more gun laws. I’ve done loads of research of this online and have yet to find an argument as well-stated and measured as yours.

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About Author

Mary Patterson Broome is the Editor-in-Chief of RehabReviews.com and After Party Magazine and has also written for Women's Health Magazine Online, AOL and WE TV. She has been performing stand-up comedy at clubs, colleges, casinos and festivals across the country and internationally for over a decade. Originally from southern Alabama, she now calls Los Angeles home.