Problematic Poster Child
By Leah Smith
The Disability Dialogue
According to shootingtracker.com, the world’s only crowdsourced mass shooting tracker, there have been 225 mass shootings in 2015.
That’s 225 incidents in which a gun and four or more victims were involved in the seven months of 2015. That’s more than one shooting per day.
One thing that we can all agree on is that this is a problem; however, how we solve it, may be an even bigger problem. While I’m not here to get into a debate about second amendment rights, what I am here to discuss is: who we’re actually talking about when we discuss mental health and gun control. While this has become a national policy issue, and is guaranteed to be a hot topic in the 2016 presidential race, I want to be sure we all know what we are talking about when we say, “Let’s keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.” Who are these so-called 'mentally ill?' Who is she? What does he look like? And what does that even mean?
Mental illness and mental health are words we use for non-apparent disabilities like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, ADHD, anxiety, autism, etc. When I say non-apparent disabilities, I mean exactly that- you can’t look at a person and know. Statistically speaking, you most likely have friends with any number of these disabilities and you have no idea, as one in four people are psychologically diverse. However, nothing about having any of these disabilities necessarily means you are more inclined to be violent. In fact, even the American Psychological Association (APA) has stated that having a psychiatric disability is not an indicator of future violence, but rather "the most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior." Of course, ANYONE, with or without this lived experience of non-apparent disability, can have a history of violent behavior. A diagnosis does not determine this. Instead, this narrative serves to only further stigmatize an entire group of people. It silences our brothers, sisters, cousins, moms and coworkers into further shame and fear by allowing mass murderers to be the poster children for psychological diversity. This rhetoric only discourages any of us to recognize the presence of a non-apparent disability and take the steps needed to accommodate and live well with it.
Using 'mental illness' as a scapegoat for explaining gun violence can potentially create or exacerbate many other public policy problems. Rather than designing a witch hunt for anyone with an invisible disability, let's instead focus on how we, as a society, can support people. As we should respond to any disability, let's focus our policies on providing better access to supports and services, along with better enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Society has a bigger responsibility to disabled people than just heaping stigma upon them.
People living with invisible disabilities deserve to be able to recognize their disability without having to conceive of themselves as potential killers. This is not their truth and this is not the truth.
Leah Smith is a writer, communications professional and disability advocate. Leah holds a Bachelor's in Public Relations and a Masters in Public Administration and Policy. She has focused her career on creating access and equality for all. Leah currently resides in Philadelphia with her partner and two dogs.