Following the Parkland, Florida, shooting that killed 17 children and school faculty, across the country lawmakers, parents, students and neighbors have been discussing risk factors that contribute to mass shootings and preventative measures our society must take to stop them. Much of the conversation is centered around mental health issues and stigmatizing ideas such as creating a mental health registry and institutions that isolate individuals as fearsome because of their disease.
People with mental illness are convenient scapegoats when mass shootings occur. Rather than examining how we as individuals and as a community could prevent mass shootings like this in the future, we have immediately listed mental health issues as the cause and explained away the atrocity by ambiguously stating the shooter was diagnosed as bipolar and/or autistic.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the majority of “people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.” Those who have a mental illness are actually more than 10 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the American population, let alone the perpetrator.
The consequences of blaming mass shootings on mental illness instead of the many complex factors that lead to violent choices is vulnerable people — especially children and young adults — believing we want them to stay silent and isolated. We are saying we are afraid, judge them and may even victimize them. I have firsthand felt the scathing shame and self-loathing that mental health stigma perpetuates as one who has a diagnosed mental illness and autistic disorder. I have dealt with self-harm and substance abuse because I was too ashamed of my illness to seek support.
Stopping the stigma and changing how we talk about mental illness is one thing we can control to prevent the feeling of desperation that can lead to harmful actions. Mental illness is not the common denominator in these shootings.4 comments on this story
Ending the crisis of mass shootings will require collaboration on multiple fronts to promote societal and cultural change. For example, we need to proactively work to prevent domestic and familial violence, which has been identified as a pattern in 54 percent of mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. We need to expand school-based behavioral health programs and access to treatment. We need to discuss laws pertaining to guns and gun safety with candor and compassion. Keeping the youth of Utah safe, especially those who struggle with mental illness, should not be a polarizing debate.
Colin Dively is the youth coordinator for Utah Youth Empowered to Succeed (UT-YES), a peer group that assists young people with, or at risk of developing, mental health disorders between the ages of 16 and 25 to transition successfully into adulthood.