As America tries to make sense of their latest spate of mass shootings and the motivations behind them, Twitter and Reddit users have taken to sharing words of positivity and support for mental illness, mental health, and those in therapy
Last weekend, two mass shootings took place in the US. In the space of just 13 hours, 31 people were killed by two shooters. 22 people lost their lives in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, whilst nine died in a busy nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio. Investigators currently seeking answers have said that the Ohio shooting showed ‘no indication’ of radical motive, though evidence has suggested the shooter explored ‘violent ideologies’.
While many citizens and politicians have called for gun reforms, others, including President Trump, have blamed mental illness, video games, and social media for America’s rise in mass shootings. In a recent speach, Trump said “mental illness and hatred pull the trigger – not the gun”.
Former US President Barack Obama was amongst those opposing such beliefs, as he took to Twitter to share his thoughts.
“First, no other nation on Earth comes close to experiencing the frequency of mass shootings that we see in the United States. No other developed nation tolerates the levels of gun violence that we do. Every time this happens, we’re told that tougher gun laws won’t stop all murders; that they won’t stop every deranged individual from getting a weapon and shooting innocent people in public places. But the evidence shows that they can stop some killings. They can save some families from heartbreak. We are not helpless here.
“While the motivations behind these shootings may not yet be fully known, there are indications that the El Paso shooting follows a dangerous trend: troubled individuals who embrace racist ideologies and see themselves obligated to act violently to preserve white supremacy. Like the followers of ISIS and other foreign terrorist organisations, these individuals may act alone, but they’ve been radicalised by white nationalist websites that proliferate on the internet. That means that both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.
“But just as important, all of us have to send a clarion call and behave with the values of tolerance and diversity that should be the hallmark of our democracy. We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalises racist sentiments... such language isn’t new. It is the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkins. It has no place in our politics and our public life.”
Experts warn blaming mass shootings on mental illness leads to stigma
The US is now home to over 30% of all mass shootings worldwide, despite having just 5% of the population. Through reframing and shifting the blame for gun violence onto those experiencing mental illness, expert psychologists and psychiatrists have warned we are stigmatising those with official diagnoses. CEO of the American Psychological Association, Arthur C Evans Jr, said:
“Blaming mental illness for gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available. As we psychological scientists have said repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and there is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will resort to gun violence.
“Based on the research, we know only that a history of violence is the single best predictor of who will commit future violence. And access to more guns, and deadlier guns, means more lives lost.”
Chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, Arthur Evans, said: “Until we begin to have our political leaders speaking more accurately to these issues, it’s up to us to put the facts out there.” Evans went on to highlight that the use of terms like “monsters” in relation to those with mental illness adds to the stigma that keeps others from seeking treatment.
Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Beth McGinty, explained “Mental illness diagnosis is not an evidence-based risk factor for risk of violence toward other people – 50% of Americans meet criteria for a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, and most will not go on to commit violent crimes.” Just 3% of violent crimes within the US are thought to be committed by those with serious mental illness, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
As the Washington Post pointed out, every time a mass shooting occurs, the conversation returns to mental health, with politicians quick to point out shooters ‘disterbed minds’ and ‘loner tendencies’.
Most studies have revealed, time and time again, that only a small number of mass shooters have been found to have mental health issues. Instead, stronger predictors can include a strong sense of resentment or a desire for infamy, domestic violence, or access to firearms.
“I have bipolar disorder and anorexia. Never once have I considered a mass shooting. These incidents we are seeing time and time again in America are not as a result of mental illness. They are a product of male entitlement and white supremacy. #IAmNotDangerous”
Her post has since inspired an outpouring of tweets from other mental health advocates, influencers, and individuals who have experienced first-hand the stigma that can surround mental illness.
Psychiatrist and mental health writer, Dr Benjamin Janaway, shared his experiences:
“I’m Ben. I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for years. I have become a doctor and psychiatrist. I try to help people. Sometimes I do.
“My mental illness does not define who I am as a person. Or whether I am worth knowing. #IAmNotDangerous”
Mental health advocate, Elle Rose, highlighted the statistic likelihood of those with ill mental health to be victims, not perpetrators of violent crime.
“I’m Elle. I have ADHD, DPDR, depression, anxiety, I’m a recovered bulimic, and I’ve been hospitalised for depression six times as an adult. Statistically, I am more likely to be a victim of a violent crime. #IAmNotDangerous and I need treatment, not ableism. I am not your scapegoat.”
According to Time to Change, over a third of the public think those with mental health problems are likely to be violent. In actuality, those with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators.
Individuals experiencing ill mental health are most likely to be a danger to themselves. 90% of those who complete suicide within the UK experience mental distress. According to the British Crime Survey, violent crime offenders are more likely to be under the influence of drugs of alcohol, with almost half (47%) of victims of violent crime believing their offender was under the influence of alcohol, and 17% believing they were under the influence of drugs. In contrast, only around 1% of victims believed that the violent incident happened because of mental illness.
Mental health is for everyone
In the wake of recent discussions around mental health and mental illness, Reddit users have taken to sharing positive messages around mental health, mental illness and wellbeing. In one post, which has since been upvoted more than 33,000 times, users shared a powerful message:
“Nothing has to be ‘wrong’ with you to go to a therapist” the original post read.
In response, one therapist wrote: “I’m a therapist. Some people come to me to break down severe childhood trauma. Some people come to me because their job is super stressful. Some people come to me because they’re worried all the time about stuff that they know they shouldn’t be worried about but they worry anyway. Some people come to me because they’re bad at focusing. Some people come to be because their mom said they should but they’re enjoying the experience anyway.
“What I’m saying is there is no wrong time, reason, or explanation to come see a therapist. We’re ready for you.”
The scale of the problem: if mental illness isn’t to blame, what is?
We would all like a simple explanation for why people do terrible things. If we were able to find a single leading cause, helping tackle and prevent future tragedies could be possible. Yet life isn’t always this simple. Trying to scapegoat a single group (or groups) of vulnerable individuals, such as those with ill mental health, is more likely to dissuade them from seeking help and support whilst further stigmatising those within the community.
What, then, can we do? Creator of the controversial online forum 8Chan, Fredrick Brennan, has called for sites that may be the breeding ground of radical conversation and movements to be shut down. The El Paso shooter posted their four-page message on 8Chan shortly before beginning his shooting. In recent months, as pointed out by The New York Times, forums such as 8Chan have become a ‘go-to resource for violent extremists’, with at least three mass shootings being announced on the site ahead of the events.
While websites such as this were originally designed as places for free speech, many have now become home to violent white nationalists and extremists, including the growing, often-violence-against-women promoting group labelling themselves as ‘incels’ or ‘involuntary celibates’.
Chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, explained: “8Chan is almost like a bulletin board where the worst offenders go to share their terrible ideas. It’s become a sounding board where people share ideas, and where these kinds of ideologies are amplified and expanded on, and ultimately, people are radicalised as a result.”
Through creating echo chambers where we can only encounter others with similar (or more extreme versions of) views to our own, we risk further amplifiying mistaken beliefs, spreading misinformation, and losing the ability to have serious, civil discussions with others whose views may differ from our own.
When high-power, public figures make claims and accusations that scientists, researchers, psychologists and experts disagree with or have disproven, they risk further spreading misinformation, deepening surrounding stigma, and creating a hostile environment with little basis on facts.
When headlines run with dangerous, scapegoating rhetoric that has the potential to cause more harm than good, it puts some of the most vulnerable amongst us at greatest risk.
We have a responsibility – as individuals, as mental health advocates, as compassionate human beings – to question when we see words of hatred and vitriol being spread. We have a responsibility to question, to challenge, to speak up, when we see others being scapegoated, facts being ignored, experts being overlooked. We are in an age where experts are treated with fear and mistrust for sharing their findings, yet those who can shout the loudest or have the deepest pockets can direct the conversation in dangerous ways that favour them.
It’s through the spreading of positivity, the brave voices of mental health advocates speaking up and sharing their stories, and the continued dedication of mental health organisations, researchers, and experts, that we can continue to overcome the ongoing stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental illness and violent crimes.
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed within this article or are currently experiencing ill mental health, help and support is available. If you need immediate help, visit your local A&E department or call 999. For more information and support on seeking urgent mental health support, visit the NHS website.
The Samaritans are available to call, free of charge at any time, on 116 123 or visit their website to find out how you can get in contact.
Or to find an experienced, accredited counsellor or therapist near you, visit Counselling Directory or use the search box below.