When I hear or see news headlines about mass shootings, my immediate reaction is a mix of horror and sorrow. But once the pain begins to dull, my next response is to brace myself. For the next few days or weeks, the news will be covering the shooting non-stop and as part of their coverage, they will go into detail about the shooter (even though that is the opposite of what they should do).
I’m not concerned about the color of the shooter’s skin, or what religion he practices. What I brace myself for is the revelation that he has a mental illness. Or, even if he doesn’t have a mental illness, it’s likely that the news will speculate he does or claim he does without any evidence.
For days and weeks, they’ll go through his behavior as described by others. Perhaps he was “always angry” or “quick to go off” or maybe “a bit weird” or “a loner.” And once again, society as a whole will begin to associate those with mental illness as angry, dangerous individuals that we should be afraid of.
These depictions in the mass media are precisely why I don’t feel comfortable talking about my own struggles with mental illness unless I am talking to a friend I trust or certain family members who I think will understand. When I say “I have bipolar disorder,” the first thing a stranger might think of is a mass shooter that they heard about a year or two ago or a movie they saw recently.
I feel partly to blame for that, for not being more open and more inclined to spread awareness of mental illness, but that just shows what a vicious cycle this problem is. If we feel society doesn’t understand us, we worry about speaking out and being judged, but if we don’t speak out, then society has less of a chance to understand us.
I don’t have a simple answer for this problem. It is inherently a societal issue and it will take a lot to solve it. I know that our society has a lust for celebrities and big personalities and I can’t say that I’m not curious to know more about a person who somehow found it okay to go out and kill multiple people. But I do think there is one step we can take now.
Maybe instead of ignoring the problems of lax gun control and our terrible mental health system and giving the supposed mental health of the shooter as the reason why the shooting occurred, we could, as a nation, begin to have a productive conversation about the problems those with mental health face as they try to navigate treatment.
Perhaps instead of only talking about mental illness when mass shootings occur, we could have an ongoing discussion of what needs to be changed, improved, or reworked to begin the long process of helping a large percentage of the population begin to heal.
Author’s note: The use of “he” is not to assume the shooter’s gender or say that all mass shooters are male. “He” is meant to be used as a generic gender term.