Mental Illness and Mass Shootings: America Has a Choice to Make

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Photo by rtdisoho on Pixabay

Before I dive into the meat and potatoes of this piece, it’s important to clarify a few things that some of you may not know about mental illness.

First off, the vast majority of mentally ill individuals are not a threat to the general public and do not commit violent crimes, which would obviously include mass shootings like the one that took place this past week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Secondly, the notion that mental illness is the driving force behind mass shootings can best be described as a pernicious myth, one that ironically undermines efforts to dismantle the stigmas that discourage mentally ill people from reaching out for the help they need.

Last but not least, you cannot strip mentally ill individuals of any of their constitutional rights — and yes, that includes their second amendment right to keep and bear arms — for the sole reason that they are mentally ill, which is an idea that often gets tossed around after a mass shooting. If you’ve ever been involuntary committed to a psychiatric facility, you’re automatically prohibited from purchasing a firearm, but an involuntary commitment implies a degree of observable and severe mental instability that most mentally ill people never exhibit.

All that having been said, it’s apparent that the role mental illness has played in some of the mass shootings we’ve witnessed over the years is not insignificant, and the Parkland shooting is a prime example of that.

It’s also true that in the Parkland case, the red flags were abundant and difficult to miss, and it’s worth asking whether law enforcement could have done more to prevent this tragedy. By its own admission, the F.B.I. dropped the ball in the worst way possible when it failed to investigate the alleged shooter after receiving a tip from someone close to him last month.

Had the bureau investigated, though, there’s no guarantee that they would have intervened or taken any action against the Parkland shooter. Prior to killing six people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, another young man whose name I won’t spell out was investigated by local police after his mother contacted his therapist to express her concerns regarding videos he had uploaded to Youtube. The therapist forwarded her concerns to a mental health agency, who in turn passed them along to local law enforcement. Officers subsequently questioned the soon-to-be shooter but declined to search his residence. Had they done so, they would have discovered the three semi-automatic weapons he had recently purchased.

Furthermore, the Parkland shooter had already been investigated by state authorities in 2016. They determined that the “final level of risk is low,” according to a report from Business Insider.

So what exactly are we supposed to do? How can we more accurately identify individuals who are both severely disturbed and prone to acts of extreme violence before they’re able to perpetrate the kind of horror witnessed in last week’s shooting?

While experts have learned quite a bit about how to identify such threats, common sense tells us that they’ll never be able to predict every school shooting before it happens. Experts are only human, after all.

Of course, many gun control advocates would prefer to keep the focus on guns. After it was revealed that the Parkland shooter carried out his massacre with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, gun control activists and their allies in Congress immediately renewed their calls for a ban on “assault weapons.”

But even if Congress agreed to pass such a ban — and it’s highly unlikely they will—there’s no guarantee the ban will work as intended. The effectiveness of the 1994 assault weapons ban remains a hotly debated topic, and much of the evidence suggests that even if the ban did some good, it fell far short of expectations.

Furthermore, let’s not forget that the thirty-two people who died in the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, which remains the second-deadliest mass shooting in American history, were killed with handguns, not rifles. And to be blunt, handguns aren’t going to be banned anytime soon. To accomplish that feat, you’d have to either get the second amendment repealed or convince the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. I don’t intend to argue for or against either of those propositions today, but neither seems likely to happen in the near future, if they ever happen at all.

In the meantime, there is one very specific strategy we could pursue, a strategy that gets talked about from time to time but is rarely found at the top of any politician’s to-do list; we could start focusing more on the plight of the mentally ill.

The Parkland shooter will be remembered as a barbarous monster whose freedom — and perhaps his life, depending on how the courts see it — was forfeit the moment he stepped into his former high school and opened fire on students and faculty alike. If there is a God, absolution may not be completely out of his reach, but his fate in this life has been sealed. There won’t be any earthly redemption for him. Not after what he did.

That being said, we shouldn’t forget that, prior to the events of last Wednesday, the Parkland shooter was just another disturbed young man shuffling through life with his humanity intact but his mind adrift, waiting for a rescue that would never come. His story won’t elicit much sympathy after all the horrific pain he has inflicted on the families of Parkland, and understandably so, but it’s still a story that deserves careful examination and dissection by educators, parents, lawmakers and mental health professionals. If his life can be said to have held any value at all, that value will likely be found in the lessons we can draw from the missed opportunities and failed interventions that characterized the path he traveled for most of his life.

Right now, somewhere out there, a confused young man is wandering aimlessly down a similar path, losing himself in the process, inching closer and closer to the edge of the same psychological abyss that the Parkland shooter appears to inhabit. But while it’s obviously too late for the Parkland shooter, it isn’t too late for that wandering young man, nor is it too late for his potential future victims. With the right tools, the right attitude and a little bit of luck, we could pull them all back from the brink before the unthinkable happens again. It’s really just a question of whether or not we have the will to try.

It’s important to keep in mind that if we’re finally going to get serious about dealing with mental illness in this country, we shouldn’t do so strictly because of mass shootings. Even if we lived in a world where mass shootings never happened, the mentally ill would be just as deserving of respect and support as they are in this world.

In other words, we should try to do right by the mentally ill because it’s both the right thing to do and could potentially prevent the next Parkland, Columbine, Newtown or Virginia Tech.

Unfortunately, the only time Republican politicians want to talk about mental illness is when they can use it to pull attention away from gun control. In any other context, they have virtually nothing to say on the subject. That apathy hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it’s why so many Americans are so very skeptical of the party’s claim that this will be the time they actually get something done.

By contrast, Democrats are certainly more willing than Republicans to invest in better, more expansive mental health services. Beyond that, though, we don’t typically hear much about mental health from Democratic lawmakers, save for the occasional bone-tossing speech during election season.

And throwing more and more money at the problem isn’t going to accomplish much anyway unless we take the time to figure out where that money is most needed. Do we need to hire more school psychologists? Provide better mental health training to educators and law enforcement officials? Establish better support networks for socially isolated kids? Do we even need to spend more money, or are there efficient and inexpensive options we simply haven’t identified? These are just a few of the questions that are often raised when dangerously ill people commit mass shootings. But more often than not, those questions get moved to the back burner within a few days after such shootings. Within a few weeks, they get taken off the stove altogether.

The mentally ill aren’t a heavily sought-after voting bloc, nor do they have the political leverage that many other communities do. Nevertheless, it’s time for our elected leaders to make mental health a higher priority and start leading the way on this issue. America can’t afford to continue kicking this particular can down the road. It isn’t the sexiest issue out there, and it may not compel as many people to hit the voting booth as, say, abortion, immigration or gun rights, but something must be done. The mentally ill deserve better, the Parkland shooting victims and their families deserve better, and the nation as a whole deserves better.

Remember, if you’re suffering from mental illness and need immediate help, or if you’re afraid that someone you know might be mentally ill and a danger to others or to themselves, there are resources you can take advantage of right now.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness is a good place to start looking for answers to questions related to mental health. To visit their website, just click this link.

If you’d like to talk to someone about finding mental health services in your area, the SAMHSA National Helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The number is 1‑800–662–4357.

If you’re feeling suicidal and need to talk to someone immediately, please, please, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255. It’s free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.

Lastly, if you believe that someone you know is about to harm themselves or someone else, please don’t hesitate to call 911.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

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