Why the Parkland shooting cannot be about mental illness

It is not that America doesn’t desperately need mental health reform. We do.  But if we make the pervasive instances of school shootings solely about mental illness, we are doing mental health care reform a serious injustice. Avoiding gun reform by focusing on mental health reform cheapens our need for revisions to our mental health care system and deflects from the real issue. It demonizes the mentally ill and associates them with mass shooters, further stigmatizing mental illness and making it even more difficult to speak up and attain help.

We need to increase access to mental health services for Americans.  We need to acknowledge the trauma that is caused by living in poverty, and what the ramifications of that trauma are on the individual. We need mental health counseling in our schools. Why, on average, are we seeing only 1 school counselor for every 491 students when the American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 ratio, in the least. We need to make medications to treat mental illness more affordable. And connected to all of these initiatives, we need to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. These are truths that are separate from the gun debate that is currently taking place in America.

Trump tweeted on Thursday,

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Are we moving closer to the criminalization of the mentally ill in order to avoid a conversation about gun reform?

To say that school shootings are an issue of mental illness may not be wrong, but what is wrong is to hide the need for gun reform inside the mental illness argument. Politicians have been blaming mental illness since Columbine, and yet, where are the reforms? If we’re going to avoid the conversation about gun reform and instead, insist that this is an issue of mental illness, then we should at least be seeing improvements to our mental health care system.

I can’t help but feel that this concern over the state of the nation’s mental health seems forced and insincere. It feels like we’re talking about mental illness as a way to avoid the conversation that we need to be having about gun control. The terrorists in these mass shootings are all men and overwhelmingly white. If we look at Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland, all three communities are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. White men get the luxury of being mentally ill as opposed to being labeled terrorist, which further stigmatizes mental illness. The face of mental illness is becoming the younger, white, angry man who is struggling with violent tendencies, impulse control, isolation, a proclivity for harming animals and an inability to manage his temper. This is not the vast majority of people who have a mental illness, and by making this the face of mental illness, as a country, we are making it harder and harder for people to seek help and still feel “normal.”

Despite calling for improvements to the state of mental health care in our country, Trump’s tax bill would actually slash important mental health departments. All evidence points to the fact that Trump and the Republicans don’t really care about mental health care reform, and they are just using it to keep us from talking about the issue of gun reform. If Republicans aren’t just protecting their NRA connection and are actually concerned about the state of American’s mental health, why hasn’t the issue of mental health been brought up sooner? Where was the call to improved mental health after the 1992 riots? Why weren’t Republicans talking then about the trauma caused by poverty and the subsequent PTSD that may have come from witnessing or being party to the riots or the beating of Rodney King? Where was the call to improved mental health care during the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s? An entire population of Americans, shoved into the shadows to die and watch each other die, without the legal or medical health care of the country that was supposed to protect them. Where was the call to improved mental health care during the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s? No one was addressing the mental toll of watching a family member suffer from addiction. Where was the increased school counseling for children whose parents were incarcerated? Where is the call for mental health access for Puerto Ricans who have been displaced or who have witnessed their homes and communities swept away?

Where is the evidence that our political leaders really care about mental health care reform? It seems like we only care about improving mental health care in our country when it means protecting the NRA and our antiquated 2nd amendment rights.

It is not that we don’t need mental health reform in this country. We desperately do, but the last thing we need is the poster boy for mental illness to be a deranged murder. The fight for mental health reform is needed and important, but Americans should not be deterred from insisting on gun control reform for the consolation prize of empty promises to improve our mental health care system.

 

These Two Douche Bags

Yesterday I stumbled upon two serious douche bags. I was getting work done at the Starbucks on the Post Road in Fairfield Connecticut, and these douche bags introduced themselves to the room by stomping up the stairs (it’s a two-floor establishment) while one of them boomed to the other, “Yeah my divorce lawyer is a real bitch.”

They were salt and peppered, attractive, white, older men in their late forties or early fifty. After they finished berating their ex-wives and their bitchy divorce lawyers, they got to work, taking up four seats and one table, making sure to really spread out and get comfortable in the packed Starbucks. They yelled into their phones, conducting their business on speaker phone, disrupting the peace and quiet for the other patrons. They swore loudly, and people got up and left. Even from across the room with headphones on, I could hear them easily.

Honestly, I didn’t mind the distraction too much, because I love a good distraction while I’m trying to write, but then they started talking about the women they were currently and had in the past, been “fucking.” I muted my headphones and wrote down parts of their conversation because it was just too good not to.

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“Here’s the thing. She was hot, like a Playmate hot, but I’m not gonna commit because I’ll tell you, I’ve got four more years of alimony to pay, and I’ve got all these women in rotation. And it’s like my dad used to say, if it drives, flies, or fucks, rent it. Don’t buy it.” 

The women around me looked over at them, and we exchanged looks with each other. giphy4But we didn’t say anything to the men. I thought about it. I thought about walking over and politely asking them if they could keep it down. I imagined yelling from across the room, you guys are rude douche bags! I thought about sauntering over and giving them a good feminist rant. I thought about a lot of different scenarios, because, like I said, I was trying to do anything to keep from actually writing. But in the end, I didn’t say anything. I put my music louder and I finished the piece I had been working on.

I thought about those Douche Bags all night last night, and I woke up thinking about them this morning. Should I have said something to them? Why didn’t I say something to them?

Part of the reason why I didn’t say anything to them is that I didn’t want to come off as a delicate snowflake. I mean, I like a good racy joke. I swear like a sailor. I’m no prude and I like to think that I save my “that’s offensives” for really really offensive stuff. If I had gone over to them and said, “I’m sorry, but your language is really offensive to me,” I’m sure they would have quieted down, but it wouldn’t have changed their mindset. I didnt’ want them to quiet down, I wanted them to think differently. It wouldn’t have altered their perception of women and it wouldn’t have gotten to the core issue of why they think it’s acceptable to not just talk about women that way, but think about women that way. And honestly, I wasn’t offended. I posted this picture of the Douche Bags on my Instagram, laughably explaining the situation and a friend kindly responded, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It’s very offensive.” But this word, offend, has taken on such a bullshit connotation.

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Technically, an offense is an annoyance or resentment caused by a perceived insult. To use the word offensive suggests that the person doing the offending could be right. The offense has to do with your individual beliefs. It has to do with you personally and your individual ideals, and that is where the problem lies. As long as we are looking at the way women are treated, viewed, exploited, stigmatized, threatened, and so on, as a personal issue, and not a societal and cultural issue, we’re not going to get anywhere. I wasn’t offended. They were just wrong. If these guys had been jerking off at Starbucks, I wouldn’t have gone over to them and quietly said, “I’m sorry but that is offensive to me.” It’s not offensive. It’s wrong. And talking and thinking and treating women like that should be as socially unlawful as jerking off in public. We’re not going to do it because it’s the wrong the thing to do.

Another reason why I didn’t say anything is because I honestly didn’t think it would change anything. I succumbed to apathy. I resorted to the “these guys are douche bags and I’m not going to change their minds and being confronted by a woman while they’re talking about women is only going to solidify their ideas about women, so fuck it, I’ll just check Facebook again, I mean, finish this project.” But maybe the point shouldn’t have been to change the minds of these men, but to publically let them know that what they’re saying is wrong. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to their opinion and should be able to freely express their ideas, even if I don’t agree with those ideas. The problem here is that, as a society, we are still very gray on issues of right or wrong in terms of human equality and treatment. Mistreating a person based on their gender/ gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity is wrong. It is not an issue of personal belief systems or ideas. It was cowardly of me to say to myself, “well even those Douche Bags have a right to their opinion and ideas,” because when a person’s opinions and ideas lead to inequality and potential violence, then those “opinions” are wrong. The more we stand up to these ideas, the more unacceptable they become.

Even still, with all of this contemplation and reflection, I don’t know how I’d treat the situation if I had a do-over. The truth is, I’m still scared to be a woman sometimes. I’m scared to be “that girl” or to be too vocal or “make a scene” or get too emotional. I’m worried about coming off as too bitchy or like a “know it all.” I was scared of confronting those men because there was a part of me that questioned whether I would have been right or wrong to call them out. Hell, there is still a part of me that feels weird about buying tampons from a male cashier.

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How am I going to confront two grown, white men and tell them that their views on women are wrong? I was scared that I would have been ostracized in that Starbucks, and if things got intense, no one would have had my back.

I blew it this time, but something tells me I’ll have another chance because there are a lot of Douche Bags out there.

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Remember When We Used to Have “Going Out” Clothes?

A few weeks ago, I was getting on a train in New York City. It was 1am, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I went into the city. I wore an outfit. I drank cocktails that were way too much money, and then I even went to a second location that involved walking down a dark flight of stairs into a tiny sweaty room full of people dancing and nowhere to put my coat where I danced and drank more cocktails.

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My old ass trying to rage

At one, I was getting on the train, and gaggles of young women were just arriving. They were wearing valor jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts with platform sandals, sunglasses in the shape of hearts and black lace chokers. They were laughing with each other and taking long swigs from cute little flasks that they pulled out of their tiny purses. They took pictures of the ceiling of Grand Central Station and selfies with one another.

For a second, I rolled my 35-year-old eyes at these groups of girls. Little girls. Girls who, in the moment, might be feeling grown, but I knew, I knew so much better. They were babies, and they should be in bed, or heading home on the 1am train to their beds, not gallivanting all over the…and then I stopped myself.

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Once upon a time, I was one of those girls. I would put on ridiculously cute outfits that didn’t match the weather at all and gallivant across cities with too little clothing on, laughing too loudly, full of too much alcohol and confidence, surrounded by my girls feeling unstoppable. I had one particularly infamous outfit.

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This isn’t the shirt exactly, but you get the idea. (I had to google “slutty butterfly shirt” to find this image)

It consisted of stretch jeans that somehow had glitter built into their fabric, high black platform sandals, and the most amazing “shirt” ever created. It was a butterfly made out of sparkly sequence. The wings flapped out to (barely) cover my boobs, and stretched down to not even come close to covering my belly button. To get into it, I had to hold the butterfly against my chest, while at least two girlfriends weaved the lace up back in place and tied me into it, tightly. Once in this shirt, I would slather glitter lotion all over my body and have more best friends slather it on my back so it would sparkle under the lights of the club. I would wear this outfit out, proudly, into the New England winter with no coat, because who could afford the 5 dollar coat check? I tear up now, thinking about the sheer class of this scene.

Those late teens to early twenties, although filled with unreasonable outfits and questionable moral choices were a vital part of my development, and were no less important than my exploration of womanhood in my 30s. This turbulent and often confusing part of my life taught me about friendship and love. It taught me about what I would and wouldn’t accept from men: as sexual partners, as dance partners, as boyfriends, as study partners, and as friends.  The late teens and early twenties were a time to practice being an adult. They were full of mistakes that felt cripplingly permeant. There was such a limited point of reference and all of a sudden we were doing such adult things that we had no way to evaluate. There was this intense pressure to figure it all out.

If I could go back to that 21-year-old, I would tell her that she’s doing great. I would encourage her to rage hard and I would promise her that even though it doesn’t feel like it, she really is figuring it all out. I would high five her and tell her that she’s going to grow and change in ways that she can’t even imagine and when she feels like it’s all coming to end, it is actually the start of something that she can’t really understand yet. I would tell her to trust herself.

I wonder what my 40 something-year-old self would tell the 35-year-old me. As women, we have so much to learn from one another, at every stage of our lives. It often feels like we’ve been so trained to compete with one another and see one another as adversaries that we don’t open ourselves to the lessons of our sisters. And since we are trained to ruthlessly doubt and criticize ourselves, we end up turning that on one another too.

Before I wrote this, I walked into a coffee shop to work for the day. At two tables pushed together, there was a group of “older” woman. They were probably in their 40s or 50s. They looked good, and they laughed openly with one another. One of them was wearing a “birthday queen” pin. The only thing I can do is hope that when I am their age, I will be an even better woman than I am right now. On my journey to that woman, I’ll look for female role models, of all ages, to help guide me. And when I see women rocking their womanhood, at every age, I’ll celebrate them.

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