Mental Illness, Violence, and Whiteness.


The #UCCShooting that happened yesterday left me feeling numb – I was definitely sad and couldn’t stop thinking about the people who died or were injured during the attack. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about how mass shootings like this are so common place in the US today and how uncomfortably normal  and routine the coverage felt.

But I was (and still am) exceptionally frustrated about the link between mental illness and violence that so many people are so willing to jump to in many mass shootings. Or at least, so many seem to jump to that connection when the shooter is white. There seems to be the trend that white shooters are considered mentally ill after a mass shooting (and their actions are then blamed on said mental illness) but shooters of color are considered terrorists and thugs. (Despite the fact that a study has shown that white Americans are the biggest terror threat in the US.)

I’m not the only one who’s frustrated with the way we as a society handle white shooters and mental illness. After the Charleston shooting in July, Arthur Chu wrote about how blaming mental illness is a cop-out for not addressing white supremacy, race/racism, hatred, and our nation’s obsessions with guns. Chu brings up the fact that in several cases (like UCC, Charleston, and the UC Santa Barbara shooting in May 2014), the shooters were exceptionally clear that they were motivated by hatred and/or racism. (Like the UC Santa Barbara shooter’s manifesto.)

The thing about mental illness and violence though is that research has shown that not only are the vast majority of people struggling with mental illness not violent but the public is misinformed about the link between the two. Maria Konnikova wrote about questioning the link between mental illness and violence, citing scientific studies that have never shown a significantly clear and distinct link between the two. Konnikova cited the decades long work done by medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University Jeffery Swanson, who has found that mental illness was not likely to be a predictor of violence and there were other factors (like substance abuse) that were better predictors. She ended the article saying that:

Mental illness is easy to blame, easy to pinpoint, and easy to legislate against in regards to gun ownership. But that doesn’t mean that it is the right place to start in an attempt to curtail violence. The factors responsible for mass violence are messy, complex, and dynamic—and that is a far harder sell to legislators and voters alike. As Swanson put it, “People with mental illness are still people, and people aren’t all one thing or another.”

It seems like it’s easier (and maybe even preferable?) to blame gun violence on mental illness, rather than take responsibility for the fact that as a society we’re not only failing people with mental illnesses (and generally don’t understand mental illnesses) but we’re often failing to keep people safe from gun violence. There’s a correlation that shows states with tighter gun control laws also have fewer gun deaths. Correlation doesn’t equal causation but that’s still an interesting point to consider.

Health care, especially in regards to mental health care, is expensive and in some places, can be difficult to access. In an article for the Washington Post, Sarah Kliff wrote about seven facts regarding the US mental health care system and how the difficulty of accessing mental health care can vary from cost, not having mental health professionals nearby, to stigma and attitudes.