Gun violence and terroristic threats are devastating problems in America today. In 2015, we experienced an average of one mass shooting per day in the United States. Article after article is written about the catastrophic effects of gun violence. That is not what this article is about.
Instead, I would like to talk about the media, and how irresponsible coverage of violent events increases hate and fear towards individuals who suffer from mental illness. Immediately after the Sandy Hook massacre, before any name was verified, I remember media sources speculating on the mental health of the gunman. It turned out that Adam Lanza did have untreated mental illness. However, when you stop there at the analysis, you miss a much more complicated situation.
According to different population studies, between 3-5% of all violent crime is perpetrated by someone who has a mental illness. The percentage of crimes with firearms committed by people with mental illness is actually lower than the general population. In rural white communities, people with severe mental illness are 16 times more likely to be shot by the police. People with mental illness are also much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
The fear associated with mental illness in the eyes of the general public is fed by media sources. If we lay blame for gun violence solely at the feet of the mentally ill, we don’t have to talk about how lax our gun laws really are, and how easy it is to get your hands on a deadly weapon in this country.
Lip service is paid to our broken mental health care system, but nothing is ever fixed. Government programs like Medicare and Medicaid do not pay for maintenance therapy for mental illness. Prior authorization puts extra restrictions on doctors and limits their ability to prescribe medications that could help their patients. In some areas of this country, the nearest psychiatric care facility is 2-3 hours away.
Progressive media is not immune to contributing to the problem. On The Young Turks, they were discussing William Celli. Celli is a 55-year-old Trump supporter who was sentenced to 90 days in jail after threatening to blow up Muslims with a bomb in December 2015. So when Ana Kasparian, who I deeply respect and admire, said outright that William Celli is “mentally unstable”, I looked it up. I could not find any credible evidence that Mr. Celli suffers any form of mental illness. Is it possible? Obviously it is possible, but I am just speculating. I am not presenting this speculation as fact.
It was an offhand comment in a story that was otherwise well covered, but it told me that it isn’t just in corporate media that problems with stigma exist. Society reinforces the idea that people with mental illness are more dangerous than everyone else, and even though it is not true, it is also natural for even progressives to have and express these biases. Even when they don’t mean to.
As one of the 25% of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness, I have never been shy about it. I am introverted and stunted about a lot of topics, but not this one. When I openly share my diagnosis with strangers, I can see the immediate fear in their eyes. It’s a reaction that I understand, but it makes me wince internally every time. Most of the time, by the end of the conversation, they leave unafraid. They see I’m just another person.
Progressives historically take the lead on social justice issues and also are not afraid to tackle their own preconceived notions in an effort to help those who are marginalized in society. We aren’t afraid to take a good look at ourselves and admit when we are wrong.