Why We Should Not Blame Gun Violence on Mental Illness

On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley walked into a Texas church and killed twenty-six people with a gun.

In the wake of this undeniable tragedy, many have been arguing about the best way to prevent it from happening again in the future. I mean, as many of us are probably aware, this is not the first time that there has been a shooting in the United States. In fact, according to the Gun Violence Archive, between January 1, 2017 to November 5, 2017 alone, there have been 307 mass shootings, averaging 7 mass shootings a week.

So, yeah, I think we all agree that this is a serious problem that needs to be stopped. But that begs the question: how do we do it?

Well, the answer for many people has been in creating stricter gun laws, something that has in fact worked for other countries (Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries). And, personally (just to get any potential bias out of the way now), I agree with this approach. But guns are not the only thing receiving the blame following a shooting.

Following the Texas shooting, comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted: “Mental health issues without guns are people with mental health issues. With guns, they become murderers“.

Now, I’m sure that when Handler tweeted this, she did not mean to imply that, if you give any random person with mental illness a gun, they will immediately start shooting. I’m sure that she did not mean that any person with depression or generalized anxiety disorder or schizophrenia is just one gun away from murder. That would be an insane generalization to make. But, at the same time, it is very common for people to blame mental illness when mass shootings like these occur.

In fact, following the Texas shooting, Donald Trump did not even mention the issue of gun control, rather calling this a “mental health problem“. More than that, 63 percent of Americans believe that shootings have more to do with mental health problems than they do with gun control.

And, I mean, sure; why wouldn’t that be considered? It has been a common theme throughout many of these shootings. Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, escaped from a mental health facility in 2012 and had a violent history. James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 more at a shooting in Aurora, was diagnosed with a schizophrenic disorder. Stephen Paddock, responsible for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, was on anti-anxiety medication and said to be susceptible to bouts of depression. This does seem to be a theme that comes up, again and again, so why wouldn’t it be at least mentioned?

Well, one thing that I think should be stressed is that, of the three examples that I gave above, only one of those men was actually diagnosed with a mental illness. Stephen Paddock was never diagnosed with anything, and Devin Kelley, while having escaped from a mental health facility, was there due to his accusations of spousal abuse and violence. He was never actually diagnosed either. In fact, only 14.8 percent of shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic.

And of people in the general population who are diagnosed with mental illness, rates of violence are surprisingly low. In fact, it is estimated that people with mental illness contribute to only three to five percent of all violent crimes in the United States. And of these three to five percent of violent acts, most of these do not involve guns.

In fact, a mentally ill person in America is more likely to be the victim of their own gun-related violence. In 2013, guns killed 33, 636 people, and nearly two-thirds of these were suicides.

The problem that needs to be addressed here is not mental illness. There are hundreds, thousands, of mentally ill people who go their whole lives without once wanting to kill anyone with a gun. I happen to be one of them. Saying that shootings are a problem of mental health contributes to this society that sees every person with dissociative identity disorder as Norman Bates, and every psychopath as Hannibal Lecter. It inspires fear against the mentally ill, fear that has contributed to the fact that those with mental illness are actually ten times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population. It also creates an environment that makes it that much harder for people with mental illness to actually seek help, because they know that if they do, then others would constantly fear what they are capable of. They do not want to be perceived as dangerous, and so they suffer in silence for society’s sake.

As Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, said, “Imagine if [Trump] had said, ‘veteran’ – that this was a ‘veterans’ issue. He’d besmirch the whole community. Well, that’s what he’s doing with mental illness.”

We need to stop blaming violence on mentally ill people, because the fact is that we are not solely responsible for it. We need to stop stigmatizing individuals who need help, who should be made to feel safe and supported so that they can reach out. Nobody should have to deal with a mental illness alone, but that is exactly what this sort of conversation is causing.

And if you are someone who is dealing with a mental illness right now, I sincerely hope that you find love and support from your community. I hope that you find or have someone who you can talk to, who won’t judge you or look down on you, because you do not deserve any of that. You are a beautiful, wonderful, valid individual, and I sincerely hope you know that, even in the wake of all this mess.

Advertisements

The Monsters in My Head

In my head, there live two monsters.

The first calls itself Depression, and it is a mass of shadows, dark and lazy and heavy, oh so heavy. Sometimes it goes to sleep, and it stays there for weeks, months even. Sometimes I think Depression has moved out, moved on, realized that there are better things for it to do than sit in my head all the damn time. Then it wakes up. It wakes up, and it sits there, weighing a ton, and it never shuts. The fuck. Up.

“Why are you doing that? I mean, why do you bother? You aren’t even all that good. Nobody cares.”

“Why are you even saying that? It isn’t like you have any friends. Nobody will respond. Nobody really likes you.”

“Oh. My. God. Did you really just say that? God, it’s no wonder all your friends left you and you’ve been single since the dawn of time.”

“Maybe it would just be better for everyone if you would just give up, you know?”

Opposite Depression, there exists its roommate: Anxiety. Depression and Anxiety don’t like each other much, but they’ve learned to coexist. While Depression sits on the couch all day, eating potato chips out of the bag and binge-watching a show it really doesn’t care for all that much, Anxiety is poised, ready to strike at a giving moment. Depression is still, but Anxiety vibrates with energy, excited and scared all at the same time.

Anxiety speaks just as often as Depression does.

“Why are we sitting still right now? There are things we have to do! Come on! Move it! Move it! Move it!”

“In case you haven’t realized, you don’t have any friends, so what you need to do is talk to that person! Go! Say something! What do you say? I have no fucking clue, just say something, because if you don’t, you won’t ever make any friends and you’re going to die alone, having contributed nothing to the world! Do you want that? Do you really fucking want that?”

“Oh no! You said the wrong thing! Well, now they hate you. You aren’t going to be alone now; you’re going to be a social pariah. Have fun with that!”

Sometimes, Depression and Anxiety speak together.

Depression: I don’t feel like doing anything today. I’m tired. I think I’m just going to stay here all day.

Anxiety: No! No, we can’t do that! We have things to do, goddamnit! And if we don’t do them, then we’re going to lose our fucking job, and have no fucking money, and not be able to do anything, so we’re just going to die alone and mean nothing.

Depression: So what? We already mean nothing. It’s not like getting up is going to change any of that.

Anxiety: Well, we have to try, don’t we? We have to do something? Get up, get up, get up! Move, move, move! Why aren’t you moving? Fuck!

Depression: Because we’re worthless. We’re lazy and stupid and nothing we ever do matters.

Anxiety: Not with that attitude, it doesn’t!

Depression: I’m tired. You’re making me tired. Can’t we just go to bed?

Anxiety: If you do, then I swear to god, I will nag you until you get up again!

Depression: That’s fine. This is fine. I’ll just lay here then.

I don’t know when they moved it. I don’t remember ever letting them in; I just discovered them one day, both living in my head. By that time, they had already wrecked the place, leaving me to do the clean-up. I despised them for that. I wanted to kick them out. I wanted them gone. I told them: get the fuck out of my head! I told them I didn’t want them, I tried to chase them out with pills. They responded differently. Depression would hide, going back to the shadows and remaining there until precisely the right time when it could return again, and I wouldn’t even notice. Anxiety would try to bribe me with new promises: “you can’t kick me out; you need me! I am what makes you brilliant! Without me, what would you be? How would you get anything done? I am your motivation, your muse! You can’t deny that, can you?”

But as time went on, I began to learn more about these annoying little tenants in my head. For one, I learned that I couldn’t just kick them out; it wasn’t as simple as all that. And I learned that they were both filthy liars who would say anything to get my attention.

I learned that they were different from one another, that Depression preyed upon insecurities so that it would be easier to ignore, but end of day, there was still nothing to prove that it was correct. Depression said that I wasn’t good at what I did, and yet I received compliments. Depression told me that they were making it up, and yet logic pointed out that that didn’t make any fucking sense. Depression could sit in my head for weeks, and I could have a hard time ignoring its drivel, but eventually, I did learn that that was all it was: drivel. The ramblings made up by some terrible tenant in my head, bent on my pain and destruction because that was what it thrived on. When I gave in, Depression won.

Anxiety, on the other hand, could never be satisfied. It lived on the idea of moremore work, more friends, more success, more more more. There was never enough. I was never enough, and Depression was quick to agree on that point. And when I really sat down and thought about it, I decided that I didn’t like the way that Anxiety thought. I wanted to be good, yes, great even, but I wanted to be satisfied. I wanted to be comfortable and open and happy, but Anxiety could never be any of that. And when Anxiety realized that I was pulling away, it would say anything it needed to draw me back, like any abusive partner would. It needed me much more than I needed it, because without me, it could not live.

Depression and Anxiety continue to live in my head together. They continue to chatter, on and off, and I know now that they will never leave, but their voices are quieter now, easier to ignore, because while they still prey off of insecurities, I recognize now that the things they say are a lie. And I do not want to listen to them. I set up the rules, I put them back in their place when I can, and when I can’t, I try to remind myself that it is not for the reasons that they give; I am not weak or worthless or unable to deal with them. I am strong, but I am struggling, as all those who are strong do. And when I need help, I will ask for help, because that is precisely what Depression and Anxiety do not want me to do. And if I am going to best them, I do not want them to be comfortable.

Are You Unlucky?

Sometimes, I do want to think that things are outside of my control.

And I’m not necessarily talking about situationally, well-I-did-all-I-could-now-all-I-can-do-is-wait-for-the-results kind of outside of my control. I’m talking about higher powers than teachers or employers or friends and family. I’m talking about luck, this idea that some people do well in this world because some force outside of their control has decided that their worthy.

I think we all like the idea of being lucky, and we’re consoled by the idea of being unlucky. When something goes wrong, then that’s okay; we just weren’t lucky, there was nothing else we could have done. When something goes right, then that’s great; we’re lucky, and things are going to keep going right for us. Either way, the result was outside of our control; we didn’t necessarily have to do anything to earn it, we just earned it by way of existing. For some people, this might be a comforting thought.

But at the same time, it isn’t really true.

Not everything is always within our control, of course; sometimes things just happen, whether they’re bad or good. Sometimes we are subject to the choices that others have made. Sometimes we lose something, or someone. Sometimes we can control what happens to us, but not always. Not often, in fact, and trying to control everything will only make the world that much more frustrating for us.

Life is a game with too many players, too many chances, for us to be in control all the time.

So when bad things happen to us that we can’t control, why wouldn’t that be because we were unlucky?

Well, in my opinion, it’s because these bad things don’t necessarily have to be bad things. We sometimes get so lost in this idea that life has dealt us a bad hand, life is being so unfair, we are so unlucky and doomed to be unlucky forever, that really, we create our own suffering. We’re so focused on the idea that we’re unlucky, and so that is all we see: terrible luck, everywhere. But the truth is, bad things happen to everyone, at one point in their lives or another. And maybe this is a rough patch in your life. Maybe things are a little bit harder right now than usual. But things like that happen to everyone at one point or another; you have not been singled out by the universe.

And more than that, I am firmly of the belief that even bad things have their purpose and meaning. And, yes, I know that can be a controversial statement for some people: people want to know what the meaning for some of the world’s most terrible crimes can possibly be, and I don’t have a blanket answer for every single scenario. But what I do know if that, in my life, my greatest suffering has been used for a purpose. I learned from my mistakes, lessons that I never could have even imagined if I hadn’t gone through them. I took my pain and I used it to relate to other people in a similar scenario, to help them. I do not regret a single tear that I have shed, because they all led me to where I am today.

So, ultimately, I don’t know if the bad things in our lives can necessarily be labelled simply as ‘bad’, not when they have their good sides as well. They most certainly hurt, yes, and they might require time to heal from, but they don’t have to be entirely negative aspects in our lives.

So when you fail, when you get knocked down and suffer loss and betrayal, can it be said that that was entirely bad luck? Is the scenario bad because it caused pain, pain that you may eventually heal from, stronger and smart than ever? Or is the scenario bad because you have decided it is bad? Are you unable to see the potential growth and change that it can offer you because you are too single-mindedly focused on the pain?

Flowers grow from mud, after all, but not if you stunt their growth and ignore them.

And I know, the world isn’t even as simple as all this: saying that all you need to do is change your perspective and focus on the good is all fine and dandy in a world where mental illness doesn’t exist. But, unfortunately, we live in a world where it does, and depression and anxiety sometimes does all it can to obscure our vision of the good. But, again, from my experience, that doesn’t mean that the good isn’t there, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t train yourself, try, to see it. All you need is time, patience, and practice: just keep looking for it, even when it seems impossible.

And, of course, you aren’t always going to see it, even if you don’t deal with mental illness. Sometimes the pain is still too fresh, too raw. Sometimes the good is hard to find, or far away, waiting to be discovered at another time. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to look for it.

Finding the good won’t magically turn the situation good, either. I’m not trying to say that we will consistently have ‘good luck’ throughout the rest of our lives if we do this. All that I’m saying is that we won’t consistently have ‘bad luck’; we’ll just be. Sometimes, things will hurt, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t grow from it and that doesn’t mean that all of our lives are pain. Sometimes, bad things happen, but that doesn’t mean that we are unlucky or that only bad things ever happen to us. That’s just the way that life is; messy and complicated, but not awful. Not so long as we train ourselves to see the brighter sides that do, most certainly, exist.

 

Is Happiness Really a Choice?

I think we’ve all heard the phrase “happiness is a choice” tossed around every now and again. Sometimes we hear it used seriously, by people who actually, genuinely believe that it is true. Sometimes we hear it used sarcastically, by people who are struggling, in one way or another, and cannot imagine how such a thing is possible.

And I have to admit, coming from the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression and who, chances are, will always live with anxiety, I do come to this phrase with a slightly… different perspective from what might be considered the average person who takes it seriously.

I mean, I know that happiness sometimes isn’t a viable choice. When my depression returns, and my mood takes a shocking dip into not-okay territory, I can’t instantly stop that just because I don’t want it to happen. If I could, I would do it, because you know what? Being depressed isn’t fun. I don’t like waking up and wondering what the point of my life is. I don’t like feeling like I haven’t contributed anything to the world, or like nobody would really care if I stopped being here. Those are all feelings that I would choose to avoid if I could.

The same goes for my anxiety. I mean, have you ever had a panic attack? They’re embarrassing at best and exhausting at worst, and most of the time, even I’m aware that they’re about nothing. I know the world won’t end if I don’t finish this project on time, or if I take on something new, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t worry me.

That’s just the nature of living with a mental illness; you can’t just banish it because you don’t want to deal with it. Trust me, I wish I could. I have wasted hours, even days of my life, wishing that I could just think and be like any neurotypical person would.

But at the same time, I still sort of believe that happiness is a bit of a choice.

And I know, I know; what I just said sounds incredibly contradictory, and like I’m turning my back on my mentally ill brothers and sisters. But hear me out:

While not everyone who uses this phrase will understand that happiness isn’t an immediate choice for people living with depression, anxiety, or any other breed of mental illness, I don’t think that means that it can’t be a long-term choice.

We can’t banish a depressive episode because we don’t want it. We can’t suppress a panic attack because we choose to. But what we can do, what we do have power over, is how we choose to react to the fact that we have these issues.

You have two options when you’re faced with these issues: you can choose to seek help, in whatever way that might mean. You can try to talk to people, whether that be a friend, a family member, a doctor, a therapist, a support group, a journal, an online blog, your guinea pig, or whatever. And, yes, sometimes this can be a bit outside of your control too: sometimes the people we choose to talk to don’t understand us, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying. And if we feel comfortable and if we can afford it, there is also the option of medication, which has been proven to improve the lives of countless people living with mental illness – not by making them neurotypical, necessarily, but by making the more dangerous and harmful parts of their mental illness easier to deal with. Not only that, but there are several other options that have been proven to make life easier for people living with mental illness, such as healthy eating, exercise, and meditation.

Or, you can take the second option: you can choose to suppress it. You can not talk about it. You can not seek help. You can never awknowledge that there might be something causing you to feel the way that you do, and as a consequence, you can continue to suffer under the weight of your mental illness. That is your choice.

And I know – trust me, I understand that sometimes, the lines between these two choices get blurred when you’re dealing with a mental illness, especially if you haven’t been diagnosed yet or you’re still questioning whether the way you feel is valid or not. When you’re depressed or anxious, your mind – which is, I repeat, ill – might repeatedly tell you that you’re wrong, that you’re just looking for attention, that there’s no way to help you and you should just give up. But there are options for people living with mental illness. If one doesn’t work, then you try another until you find something that does. People can and have found ways to make their life not only bearable, but happy and worthwhile, despite dealing with mental illness.

We talk about people who are depressed or anxious or otherwise mentally ill as though there is no possibility that they can ever lead a happy, fulfilling life, but that just isn’t the case. I might get depressed from time to time, I might have to make a point of moving gingerly around my anxiety lest I set it off, but that doesn’t mean that, overall, I’m not happy with my life. I am. I am taking strides to make life easier for me in the long run, and I am working toward my goals and dreams as best I can.

And when we say ‘happiness is a choice’, I think we too often confuse it for ‘constant happiness is possible’. It isn’t. Even if you aren’t dealing with a mental illness, there are going to be times when life, quite frankly, sucks. Sometimes, people die, or tragedies strike, or our relationships crumble, or we get let go of jobs. And when that happens, of course you are going to be sad, of course you are going to be hurt and angry and resentful. But the difference between people who choose happiness and the people who don’t, is that those who choose happiness eventually try to do something about their bitterness, and even if it doesn’t work immediately (heck, it very well might not), they do eventually let go of it and move on. Those who choose otherwise don’t. They hold onto their pain like a lifeline, feeling justified in being cruel and miserable because life wasn’t fair to them.

I have known too many people who have become addicted to misery, who feel lost without something to complain about and feel slighted from. And by knowing these people, I came to the conclusion that I never wanted to be that. So, while it isn’t always easy, while it’s not consistently possible at every moment of the day, I work hard for my happiness.

And that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have panic attacks that make me miserable and pull the proverbial rug out from under my feet. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still have depressive episodes that last for days, sometimes even weeks. All that means is that, when I hit rock bottom, my goal is always to pick myself up and start climbing again. And maybe all that is difficult and exhausting, and maybe it sometimes does feel impossible. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile.

I don’t choose constant happiness because that isn’t an option; what I choose is overall happiness.

 

Why We Should Not Dismiss People for ‘Wanting Attention’

Growing up, I was very much aware of being perceived as ‘wanting attention’. And perhaps part of the reason for this was that I engaged in a lot of behaviour that could be considered ‘wanting attention’.

The first time that I remember telling a friend that I sometimes thought about ‘not being here anymore’ was when I was roughly nine years old.

The first time I remember intentionally cutting into my skin (with my nails at the time) because I was sad, angry, or frustrated was when I was ten years old.

And although I didn’t know enough to use the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ until I was eighteen years old, that was something I was dealing with through most of my teen years. It got worse around my high school graduation, but it started from as far back as I can remember.

And to a certain extent, I’m sort of glad that it did get worse when I was eighteen, because if it hadn’t, then I might never have identified that I was mentally ill. If I hadn’t, I probably would have continued going back to that old excuse, the one that I told myself all the time before then – that I just ‘wanted attention’.

This isn’t necessarily anything that anyone told me. Nobody dismissed my claims of depression with an easy wave of their hand and the words, “you teenagers, you all just want attention”, but it didn’t matter that nobody said this to me; I said it to myself daily. I said it to myself because I had heard it of other people, and I knew that if I did actually try to speak out, that was what many people would think. And if so many people would think it, then it must be true, right?

I wasn’t carving up my arm because I actually had a problem; I was doing it because I wanted someone to see and feel sorry for me. I mean, sure, I usually tried to hide the cuts from sight, and if anyone asked me about them, I’d lie, but that doesn’t mean anything, right? Clearly, I just wanted attention, and that made the fact that I was doing it silly and meaningless.

I didn’t think about ‘being gone’ because I was struggling with suicidal thoughts; I was doing it because I wanted people to treat me as special, as different. I clearly wanted them to give me an easier time and walk on egg shells around me, right? I mean, I made a point of never telling anyone that I felt this way, specifically because I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, but the mere fact that I felt that way in the first place proved that I just wanted attention, right?

I didn’t feel empty, sad, and scared all the time because I was dealing with a mental illness; I felt that way because I wanted people to feel bad for me.

Right?

This is why I hate it when people dismiss the way that someone feels by saying, “oh, they just want attention”; because that is someone’s life and wellbeing that you are playing with. All that that person may need is one person to take them seriously, one person to point out to them that they way they feel is valid and it needs to be addressed, and that could be the difference between them taking their own lives or living years with depression, and them getting help for their mental illness and learning how to cope with it better. And any time that you are put in a position to say, “that just want attention”, you also have the option to listen to them and take them seriously.

And too many times, people who are actually struggling with mental illness, people like me who need to recognize what’s going on inside their head, are shrugged off and not taken seriously because we have this idea that people who are struggling are only struggling because they want attention. In fact, it is gotten so bad that some people don’t even have to be told that the way they feel isn’t valid for them to feel that way; our society has perpetuated this idea that all people (and young people in particular) who are dealing with anxiety or depression are actually selfish, needy burdens that I didn’t even have to be told that to believe it. All I had to do was feel the way that I naturally felt, and then I knew what people would think of me. And this can and has had some very dangerous consequences for that person.

But, for just a moment, let’s ignore the cases where someone who actually has a mental illness is ignored and refused help because of this stigma, because I know that most people would agree that that is a tragedy. What about the young people who are, legitimately, looking for attention? I mean, I’m sure that very few young people would go to the lengths of attempting suicide to try to get it, but I’m sure there are some who have, in fact, gone to very self-destructive lengths for it.

Why do we look down on them so much?

What is wrong with wanting attention? We all do. It is such an integral part of the human condition to want attention, to want love and acceptance and understanding, that we as a society actually have a word for it when we go for a long period of time without getting it – loneliness.

And take it from someone who spent her teenage years cutting up her arm: self-destructive behaviour is never okay. We should not encourage it, we should try not to engage in it, and if we notice someone else doing it, we should try to talk to them about it. But why is it that we say things like “oh, they just want attention”, as though that invalidates the whole act?

If they truly do “just want attention”, then they should get attention! They should get help, whether that be professional, medical help, or merely someone to sit down and talk with them.

Up until I was eighteen, when I realized that I had depression and anxiety and that the way I felt was real, it did matter, I spent most of my life thinking that the things I did were merely seeking attention, and therefore, they didn’t matter. They were my fault. was the stupid one. was wrong, and therefore, the way I felt should be kept to myself. I shouldn’t reach out. I shouldn’t try to get help. I should just suffer in silence.

And that’s what is wrong with this statement: it is just another way for society to keep people silent about what they are dealing with. It is a tool to keep us from talking about our mental illness, or about our feelings. And we need to talk. We need to open up. Because once we do, then we realize that we aren’t alone, that we aren’t at fault. Countless others have dealt with this before, and knowing that will help you to realize that you can get through this. You will be alright.

But it will be harder to realize that if you remain stuck in this cycle of silence.

So the next time that someone tries to talk to you about self-destructive or depressive thoughts, don’t dismiss what they have to say. Listen to them. You might not know exactly what to say; it might even be an awkward conversation for us to have, but it is an important conversation for us to have. It is a conversation that could, quite literally, save lives. Even if they are young, even if you are not convinced that they entirely know what they are talking about. Because once you listen to them, you might realize that they know more than you gave them credit for.