On Mass Shootings and Mental Disability

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Andrew Pulrang

You’re a disability activist. Maybe you’ve been involved for years; maybe you’re just learning about disability issues. Either way, you might be wondering how to respond to the terrible shootings in Orlando.

What do you say when politicians, journalists … and probably your family and friends … say that of course mental disability is a major cause of these kinds of mass public shootings?

The first thing to be quite clear about is that people with mental disabilities are part of the disability community. Disability rights includes the rights of people with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. Likewise, curbing the rights of mentally disabled people weakens the rights of blind people, intellectually disabled people, and wheelchair users.

But still, aren’t most of these guys who shoot up schools, churches, and nightclubs almost by definition “crazy?” Even if the guy in Orlando thought he was on some kind of mission, wasn’t he also, in some way, mentally impaired? If so, isn’t that important information? We agree that mental health services aren’t that great or easy to get. Wouldn’t some kind of mental health reform help prevent these tragedies? What, exactly, is wrong with blaming mass shootings on mental disability?

Put another way:

Why is it important to push back when people blame mass public shootings on mental disability?

There are three main issues:

Issue 1: The link is based on a misunderstanding of logic and probability.

People think there must be a link between mental disability and violence because they buy into a backwards version of common sense, an assumption that seems logical, but just isn’t. It seems like many of the people who commit these crimes have mental health problems, so it feels sensible somehow to conclude we need to change how we deal with mental disability.

The thing is, even if every single mass shooter was mentally disabled, it would still mean that the vast, enormous majority of all mentally disabled people are not potential mass shooters, or more likely to be violent. In fact, research indicates that mentally disabled people are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Mentally disabled people are simply not more likely to be violent.

It is certainly possible that some particular mass killings could have been be prevented if someone at the right moment had taken a little more interest in what’s going on with a particular angry, confused, and possibly mentally ill person. But that requires an individual approach, and a lot of luck, not major policy changes that affect the entire mental disability community.

Issue 2: Blaming mental disability for massacres like Orlando increases the stigma of mental disability.

Unfortunately, this upside-down logic of causes and probabilities is extremely common. We see it in the Islamophobic response to many of the very same incidents. We hear a lot about terrorism committed by Muslims. Therefore, Muslims are all be potential terrorists. Of course, the key thing here is that this fallacy is supported by pre-existing prejudices about the groups in question. People aren’t afraid of mentally disabled people only because of actual shootings they’ve seen and heard about, but also because of the fear, prejudice, and social stigma that have hung around mental illness for centuries.

This kind of thinking misleads us, and also makes mental disability stigma worse, a lot worse. This, in turn, makes it harder for mentally disabled people to stay in school, get jobs, rent apartments, even maintain lasting friendships and relationships. It further poisons lives that are already poisoned by prejudice. Like other forms of ableism, stigma against mental disability is often more debilitating than mental disability itself. We need less of it, not more.

Issue 3: Attributing mass violence to mental illness can lead to policy changes that restrict the basic human rights of mentally ill people.

When politicians cite mental disability as some sort of “cause” of terrible crimes, they usually have policy changes in mind that would erode the freedom of mentally disabled people. These can include restrictions on buying guns … which frankly, doesn’t bother me much, because I think guns should be harder for everyone to get. However, it’s a very small step from there to much drastic restrictions on personal choice and basic freedom.

Let’s make sure they take the medications, regardless of what they want or how bad the side effects are. Let employers know who’s had mental problems, so they don’t unknowingly hire a volatile person or potential murderer. Maybe we should make it easier to keep mentally disabled people locked up, where we can look after them and they can’t hurt anyone.

Let’s not kid ourselves. None of these ideas are motivated by a genuine desire for better mental health care. It is always, at bottom, about legally micro-managing an entire group people because we are irrationally afraid of them. There is a word for that.

So, if we don’t focus on mental illness, what can we do?

For starters, instead of making it harder for people with mental disabilities to get guns, make it harder or impossible to buy a gun if you have a record of workplace violence, domestic violence, suicide attempts, or documented threats, whether you have had mental problems or not. Focus on what people actually do, not on what we think they might do because of who they are.

This is something to watch very carefully right now because linking mass shootings to mental illness is especially tempting in this election year.

There is a strong motivation, especially for politicians, to try to find “reasonable” solutions that “both sides” of the political spectrum can support. “Doing something about mental illness” seems politically easier than other options … like serious gun control, which enrages conservatives and is often ruled unconstitutional, or else ramping up racial, ethnic, and religious profiling, which is beside the point, also unconstitutional, and morally repellant. Focusing on mental disability instead allows politicians to feel tough, compassionate, and bipartisan, all at the same time. It’s seductive, despite being wrong.

Focusing this way on mental disability might be a political winner, except that it is: a) illogical, b) ineffective, and c) harmful to people with mental disabilities … and by extension, to the entire disability community. As different as our disabilities may be, we really are all in this together. It matters to all of us.

Contact: Andrew Pulrang