Gun violence discussion stigmatizes mental illness

It is unfair to associate mental illnesses with violent acts.

Lian ParsonsSo far in 2015, there have been 312 mass shootings in the U.S. The deadliest was Oct. 1 in Roseburg, Oregon, when a gunman  opened fire at Umpqua Community College, killing nine and injuring seven students and faculty members.

Mass shootings are defined by the Mass Shooting Tracker as four or more people shot in one event.

The dialogue around mass shootings usually revolves around two issues: lack of gun control and mental illness. The side for gun control has several salient points to make, like comparing the number of mass shootings in the United States to Japan’s strict gun control laws and its 1.8 percent of gun-homicides out of total homicides.

Mental illness, however, is treated as a scapegoat in these situations. It is frustrating to realize a public discussion about mental illness in America doesn’t usually happen until a tragedy like the one at Umpqua occurs.

Mental illness, a term used for chemical imbalances in a person’s brain, can affect many things, like one’s mood, ability to relate to others and even day-to-day functions. Conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders are all categorized as mental illnesses, but the illnesses often blamed for violent behavior are those that lack public information.

“Schizo,” “psycho,” “crazy” and “bipolar,” these terms are used as buzzwords, especially in situations of mass shootings, and often without people truly knowing what these conditions are and how they impact those who have them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be targeted for violence than they are to commit it, as well as being at a higher risk for suicide. Mental illness does not discriminate in who it affects, though the risk factors differ, depending on circumstance like genetics and environmental factors.

For people who cannot afford healthcare, therapy or medication, mental illness can greatly impact their daily lives. Even for those who can afford it, these treatments are not a cure-all. People who lack resources are at a higher risk for unemployment and homelessness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with a serious mental illness.

When mass shootings are reported and mental illness is discussed as one of the responsible factors, they are talked about as one general diagnosis. Rarely are specific illnesses explained, distictions made, or the side effects of an illness outlined.

Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions and disorganized behavior according to the Mayo Clinic. To a person with schizophrenia, these symptoms are frightening and often lead to questioning reality and eventual withdrawal. Violence is not a symptom, and people with schizophrenia should not be considered a danger to those around them.

As with many other mental illnesses like depression, a person with schizophrenia is more likely to harm themselves than harm others.

Similarly, bipolar disorder has a wide range of symptoms, mainly characterized by extreme mood swings. According to the Psychiatric Times, people with bipolar disorder can be prone to agitation and aggression, but there is no strong link to violence.

Some people who commit mass shootings may experience mental illness, but that does not excuse their actions, nor does it mean all mentally ill people are violent. When talking about a person who commited an act of mass violence, there are many considerations—motivation, previous violent behvior, race and sex—as well as their mental health.

When considering race, mental illness is usually only a motivating factor for white men. When acts of violence are committed by black people, they are often labeled as “thugs.” People who are perceived to be Middle-Eastern are labeled as “terrorists.” There is little attention paid to their mental health and they are instead categorized as threats to society based on their race.

Mental illnesses are under-researched and there is a significant lack of education and information about them, despite the fact that 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness that interferes with their daily lives.

Blaming violence on mental illness is at best, unfair and at worst, it stigmatizes and further suppresses those who want to seek help.

Lian Parsons can be reached at

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