Stop blaming violence on mental illness — it's a dangerous assumption

Stop blaming violence on mental illness — it's a dangerous assumption
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School shootings have unfortunately become a common occurrence in the United States. This year alone, a gun has been discharged on a school campus at least 18 times.

Thankfully not all shootings have resulted in death, but as we’re all too aware, the students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were not so fortunate. On Feb. 14 a 19-year old, Nikolas Cruz, entered the high school and murdered 17 innocent people.

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Since then, numerous articles have been written condemning our nation's lax gun laws, calling out members of Congress for the money they’ve gleaned from the NRA, and other groups with a presence on the hill.

 

Politicos and members of the media have all taken to social media to place the blame on all manner of things, from the FBI’s failure to investigate the gunman, to the fact that a 19-year-old was able to buy a semiautomatic rifle legally.

However, whenever something like this occurs, too many influential people are quick to place the blame on mental illness. This is dangerous, and it is imperative that we know all the facts before doing so.

Mental health issues are not uncommon in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NAMI), approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13-18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point in their life.

Keep in mind that these are only the reported cases. It is impossible to tell how many youths go undiagnosed during the teenage years, or even their entire lives. Teenage years are difficult enough without having to deal with the stigma attached to mental health problems. The more we blame mass shootings on “another lunatic with a gun,” the less likely we are to see troubled youth seek help.

A report on Adolescent Mental Health in the United States by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health had this to say about vulnerable teens:

Because their brains are still developing, adolescents are particularly receptive to the positive influences of youth development strategies, social and emotional learning, and behavioral modeling. But adolescents’ developing brains, coupled with hormonal changes, make them more prone to depression and more likely to engage in risky and thrill-seeking behaviors than either younger children or adults. These and other factors underlying the importance of meeting the mental, social, and emotional health needs of this age group.

It should come as no surprise that there is often an association between individuals seeing therapists, or taking medication to assist them with maintaining their mental health and social stigmas. Drawing more negative attention to troubled teens could prevent them from seeking help, or even increase the chances of suicide.

The point of this article is not to bring about new common-sense gun laws, but to make an active effort to assist teens and young adults suffering from mental health disorders.

Mass shootings are of course very traumatic events. Students should not have to witness classmates, teachers, and coaches killed, and then be expected to carry on like nothing happened. Some have argued that therapists in the U.S. are not prepared to console people after these types of events.

If members of Congress are not prepared to pass common sense guns laws, then they must act to ensure that schools are equipped with special faculty with the ability to diagnose and assist students with mental disorders to find the help that they need. 

In the meantime, those with influence should be wary about automatically placing the blame on mental illness after a mass shooting. Even when confirmed that a shooter does have a mental disorder, demonizing the disorder is dangerous.

Teenagers should be encouraged to seek help when dealing with a disorder, but seeing mental disorders consistently associated with mass shootings has the opposite effect and acts as an effective deterrent to young people seeking help.

The New York Times published an excellent piece on how misleading the mental health illness claims after shootings can be, which is a step in the right direction. The next step should be actively working to address the situation. According to NAMI, approximately 44.7 million adults aged 18 or older, or 18.3 percent of all U.S. adults, live with some sort of mental disorder.

When considering serious mental disorders, that number is still a staggering 10.4 million, or 4.2 percent of all adults in the U.S. This is by no means a small, insignificant group but a significant portion of society. These are among those individuals who are  reading and hearing mental illness being directly connected to gun violence, but almost one-fifth of the adult population.

What can we do? First, make it clear that gun violence and mass shootings are not inherently connected. A shooter may suffer from mental illness, but a person suffering from mental illness is not automatically a shooter.

Second, encourage our youth to seek help. It should not be looked down on or seen as weak. Being able to acknowledge that you have a problem and need assistance is one of the strongest things you can do for yourself and your loved ones.

We need to stop being afraid of mental illnesses and seeing mental illness for what it is, treatable disorders affecting millions of Americans. Finally, ensure that students and young adults have a clear path to seeking help.

Many young people suffering from mental disorders do not know the first step to get help; if schools do not offer counseling, provide materials on how to find help, etc. Unfortunately, Parkland will most likely not be the last time this happens. Until something changes we need to do better for our struggling youth.

Maxwel Terzano works for the U.S. House of Representatives for Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxThe GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House When disaster relief hurts Lobbying World MORE (R-N.C.). He has served in the United States Air Force. The views do not represent the congresswoman.