Children Who Might Commit School Shootings Are Not “Potential Sickos”

The issues of gun control and school shootings have been heavily conversed in the United States lately, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Donald Trump weighed in with a number of tweets. The one that I want to focus on right now, however, reads as follows:

Now, there is a lot in this tweet that is concerning. The very concept of teachers being forced to carry guns is terrifying, and I genuinely hope that that never becomes a reality. But, at the same time, I think that this is the issue that the majority of people who read this tweet will focus on, and it is the issue that will be discussed more prominently. And there is something else in this tweet that I find terrifying, and worth discussion.

Namely, I want to talk about Trump’s repeated reference to shooters as ‘sickos’.

Now, before I get into this, I want to clarify something: anyone who commits a shooting has committed a terrible, sick act. They have taken innocent lives out of this world, and a very strong argument can be made that that is unforgivable. I am not trying to defend their choice to murder people, because that choice is indefensible.

What I am trying to say is that, especially lately, we have been talking more and more often about what causes people to commit shootings. And the general consensus seems to be that mental health tends to be to blame. Heck, even Donald Trump seems to be aware that mental health is involved in a person’s choice to take up a gun and murder others.

Now, the degree to which mental health is involved in gun violence is debatable. Only 14.8 percent of mass shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic. People with mental illness contribute to roughly three to five percent of all violent crimes (most of which do not even involve guns), and when people with mental illness do use guns in a violent fashion, that violence is typically turned on themselves (in 2013, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths were suicides). So when we say that “gun violence is a mental health problem”, we need to remember that mentally ill people are not one gun away from murdering a whole bunch of people.

But there is a video that has been circulating around social media in the wake of this discussion that I would love to draw to your attention now.

This video is an open letter from Aaron Stark, and it bears the very intriguing title, “I was almost a school shooter”. In it, Stark talks about his experience in school, and how he had a “very chaotic and violent childhood”. He describes being bullied, and he describes how, as a result, “I got angry, and I started hiding weapons everywhere”. He states that, the only reason why he did not commit a shooting at his school was because he did not have access to a gun.

“People say mental health is the issue, and that’s true. My mental health was in sad shape. I was severely depressed and suicidal. I felt like I had nothing at all in life to look forward to, and so I literally had nothing to lose. When someone has nothing to lose, they can do anything, and that thought should be terrifying. So, yes, mental health was an issue. A bigger issue was love. I had a severe lack of love,” Stark says.

Mental health is not the only reason why gun violence happens. However, anyone who would be willing to take a human life is not a healthy person. These are people who are deeply pained, deeply rejected by their society, and, as Stark says, severely lacking in love.

These are the people who Trump is referring to as ‘sickos’.

And I’m not necessarily concerned for the men who have already committed shootings; that is an issue far too complicated for me to comment on. What I am concerned about is the young boy who is in pain, who is angry, who is in need of support and love so that he can avoid doing the terrible thing that he has been considering, and yet he is further alienated by his own president, who dismisses him as a potential sicko.

The language that we use when referring to people matters. And ‘sicko’ is a very dismissive word. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for discussion, and yet discussion is absolutely necessary for any young person who is considering this. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for love, and yet love is vital in avoiding this exact problem. ‘Sicko’ is the sort of word that discourages a young man from coming forward and talking about his feelings, because he doesn’t want to be dismissed as a ‘sicko’. So he doesn’t come forward. He just sits with it, and lets it fester. He allows it to progress, until the absolute unthinkable happens.

The truth is, it does not take a monster to do this sort of thing. All it takes is one lost, hurting, loveless child.

It bothers me to see the leader of a country use this sort of terminology, because it gives the rest of us an excuse to follow his lead. And we cannot do this. We cannot think in dismissive terms when it comes to other human beings. We cannot allow our horror of what might be to further doom other children who have not done it yet. These are children who need love and compassion and understanding, and if the president of the United States isn’t going to give it to them, then we need to make sure to give it to them. We need to be there to listen to people who need it. We need to be open-minded and non-judgemental when it comes to what they’re saying. We need to watch our language, and make sure that we are not alienating them further. Because that is so easy to do, when we are so used to doing it.

I am firmly of the opinion that creating stricter gun laws will help to fix this issue. This is something that we need to do; but at the same time, it will not make children stop feeling this way. It will only make them stop killing each other in such great numbers. This anger and this pain and this loneliness is not alright, and it leads to so many other problems – more than just school shootings. So we need to do something to fix it.

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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.