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.