In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting on June 12th at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, talk of mental illness has of course begun to surface. Since it’s brought up in the wake of every mass shooting that ever takes place in the US or around the globe, it’s not exactly a shock.
A few days ago, Sitora Yusifiy, the ex-wife of now-dead shooter Omar Mateen—who killed 49 people and injured 53 in the three-hour shooting spree—spoke out on CNN about her ex-husband’s physical abuse, torture, and all-out instability. She added that “I saw his bipolar” and told reporters in Colorado that Mateen had the disorder, but as to whether he had been officially treated under a psychiatrist’s care or she diagnosed him herself isn’t clear.
First and Foremost, a Moment of Silence
Before I go further, I want to pause and acknowledge that this mass shooting—the worst in the history of the US—is nothing short of a complex and heart-wrenching mess. The physical abuse Yusifiy recalls is very disturbing, and I am by no means trying to negate, water down or invalidate her experience. Additionally, the knee-jerk Islamophobia that erupts throughout the country in the aftermath of violence committed on behalf of someone believed to have an affiliation with radical Islam is an equally disturbing xenophobic impulse. We’re also dealing with a hate crime that’s deeply wounded the LGBTQ community, a crime obviously linked to Mateen’s frequent visits to Pulse and the likelihood that he was a closeted homosexual and therefore dealing with that internal conflict.
And lastly, any idiot who doesn’t believe there’s a relation between Mateen’s easy access to an assault weapon and this travesty just has holes in their brain—gun reform is an absolutely imperative to prevent these tragedies, and Congress has been complicit in allowing massacres to continue through their inaction on reforming gun laws.
Bipolar Disorder and Deranged are Not the Same Thing
But I want to dive into the problem of linking mental illness with these mass shootings, and the issue of linking bipolar disorder with Omar Mateen. This problem, to me, is as abhorrent has making blanket statements that criticize Islam as a religion. The repercussions are similar—blame Islam for the terrorists and you’ve got the public afraid of all Muslims; blame mental illness for mass shootings and you’ve got the public afraid of people with mental illness, deepening the stigma, which ultimately gets in the way of people accessing treatment.
Immediately associating general “instability” or any kind of aggressive violence with mental illness—brain disorders like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression—is a perilous and unfair move. And anyone who has lived with or knows anything about bipolar disorder understands that this is not a mental illness that just makes someone randomly erratic, volatile and aggressive. (If this does happen, chances are there’s drugs or alcohol involved.)
I’ve written about this over and over and over—bipolar disorder is an oscillation between heightened energy and creativity, a flight of ideas, pressured speech and grandiosity, and severe brain-crippling and action-crippling depression. In between are periods of normal mood. It’s true that in severe cases of mania sufferers can break from reality and enter psychosis, but this rarely results in violence. Given that Mateen was described as calm and collected during the three-hour homicide, it’s pretty likely he wasn’t on a manic high.
Check Your Facts, Please
Then there’s the reality that one-third of people with mental illness will be the victim of a violent crime, coupled with the reality that just three to five percent of violent crimes in America are committed by people suffering from mental illness. Add to this the reality that the biggest threat of mentally ill people owning guns is not that they’ll commit homicide or threaten the public, but rather that they’ll take their own lives.
That’s right. The violence most often committed by a mentally ill person who’s in possession of a firearm is committed towards themselves.
Experts in psychiatry are quick to point out that using mental illness as a scapegoat in these mass shootings is not only dangerous but also ignorant. One such expert, Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at Duke University specializing in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told Pro-Publica, “If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about four percent.”
No, Mentally Ill People aren’t Toting Guns
Over the past few days, I’ve started to see snapshots of a very offensive, but, more importantly, factually incorrect, Kenneth Cole billboard rolling around social media. The billboard, which stood in New York City and was removed promptly after the American Psychiatric Association threw a warranted fit, reads “21 Million Americans Suffer from Mental Illness. Some have access to care…ALL HAVE ACCESS TO GUNS.”
We can put aside the offensiveness of blaming mass shootings and gun violence on the mentally ill for a second to debunk this notion that all mentally ill persons “have access to guns”—they do not. I’m honestly shocked that Mr. Cole (or whoever makes his PR decisions) didn’t research this before making such an uninformed statement.
There’s a litany of laws that prohibit the sale of a firearm to anyone with a mental illness. In most states, including California, where I’m a resident, any person who has been committed to a psych facility cannot purchase a firearm for at least five years after the date of admission, usually longer. I personally have signed at least seven waivers that block my purchase of a firearm since I’ve been lucky enough to see the inside of a psych unit seven times. I’ve laughed about it to my friends: “Ha, I’ll never be able to buy a gun ever! Ha ha ha!” It is also illegal under federal law to sell a firearm to any person who’s been adjudicated mentally ill, or anyone the seller suspects might have a mental illness. Individual states have varying laws.
Florida, a notably gun-friendly state, prohibits the sale of a firearm to anyone who “has been committed to a mental institution under Chapter 394, or similar laws of any other state, unless the applicant produces a certificate from a licensed psychiatrist stating that he or she has not suffered from disability for at least five years prior to the date of submission of the application.”
Compared to California, Florida has a rather short set of restrictions regarding the mentally ill purchasing firearms. But, as I’ve said, the crux of the problem with mentally ill people having access to firearms isn’t the threat they pose to the public, but to themselves.
Don’t Use Mental Illness as a Scapegoat
Unfortunately, after these mass shootings, the media and family members of shooters and, in this case, the Imam from Mateen’s mosque, are quick to blame mental illness. It’ll tie up the whole catastrophe in a neat bow and from there no one has to deal with the harsher reality that multiple factors are at play, from those related to socio-economics and radicalization to drugs and alcohol, trauma and internalized homophobia.
In a country with a shameful lack of mental health care, housing, education and other resources, the last thing we need to do is blame mental illness for mass shootings. Still, as many psychiatric experts have argued, the only good that may come out of bringing up mental illness in the aftermath of Florida is that perhaps lawmakers will step up to better fund mental health care.