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.


Why We Run: Supporting IRIS and their Run For Refugees

I published this piece on the blog of one of my clients, One6Three the Pizza Joint. They donate pizzas to this race each year and are very involved in the East Rock Community. I create pieces for their blog that highlight their connection to the community, the personality of the employees and owners, and fun pieces about their menu items and restaurant events. 

The Race

On Super Bowl Sunday, February 4th, IRIS will be holding their annual Run For Refugees. They are hoping to exceed their number of participants from last year’s race and host over 3,000 runners for a fun, fast, 5k through East Rock’s beautiful neighborhood. One6Three has joined many of New Haven’s local businesses, like Archie Moore’s, Koffee, and mActivity to support this cause by donating goods and services for the race. The money raised will allow IRIS to help refugees “establish new lives, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of the Connecticut community.” To do this, IRIS will provide housing, food, education, healthcare, and legal services as well as emotional and social support to the refuges that they work with.


The Reason

In recent years, refugee resettlement in the United States has been a hotly debated issue. Opponents of refugee resettlement point to fears surrounding national security and the perceived cost as reasons to reduce the number of refugees who enter the country. Although extensive measures have been taken to ensure that refugees do not pose a security threat, and that, in fact, welcoming refugees into our country will only strengthen the economy, a fear-based mentality has cast a xenophobic shadow across this issue.  It does not help that Mr. Trump has reinforced these fears, aggressively altering laws surrounding the welcoming and support of refugees into America. During his administration, he has capped the number of refugees entering the country to 50,000, the lowest number since 1980. Additionally, Trump has furthered his “America First” agenda by pulling out of the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. He has also repealed a “follow to join” path to citizenship that aimed to reunite refugees with their families who are still in their countries of origin.

In 2016, over 900 refuges came to Connecticut, and out of that number 475 were welcomed by IRIS. These refuges came from a variety of places including The Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. With very little help from the federal government, organizations like IRIS must rely on donors and fundraising to raise the majority of the funds that they use to serve America’s newest citizens. Aside from the humanitarian cause of helping displaced people, there is an economic benefit to supporting refuges when they enter the country. While it has been proven that “the macroeconomic effect from the refuge serge is likely to be a modest increase in GDP growth” in order for countries like America to reap the long term financial gains that refugees can offer, investing in initial supports and resettlement programs are essential. Job training and placement, language lessons, and social and emotional support can all speed up the integration process.  Although some would argue that resettlement supports place an unfair burden on the American tax payer, studies have shown that “over their first 20 years in the United States, refugees who arrived as adults aged 18-45 contributed more in taxes than they received in relocation benefits and other public assistance.”

Ideally, America wouldn’t need financial reasoning to continue one of their oldest and proudest cultural traditions of welcoming people fleeing persecution. In the perfect world, coming to terms with humanitarian facts and figures such as the 12 million Syrians who have been displaced since the start of the war,  or that violence in The Democratic Republic of Congo has forced more than 10,000 citizens to flee into neighboring Uganda, or that an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the South Sudan since their civil war began in 2013, would be reason enough to open our arms to those in need. IRIS believes strongly in supporting refuges and helping them create a new life in America. Their Run for Refuges allows their talented team to support refugees as they become happy, safe, active, members of our communities.

There is still time to sign up for the run or make a donation to IRIS before race day on February 4th.  I’ll be there representing One6Three, will I see you there?