TW: mental illness, depression, anxiety, mass shootings
I am disgusted with the way our society views mental illness. Much is made about the stigmas attached to mental disorders in psychological circles, but it’s quite clear to me that our greater society has no interest in eliminating that stigma. The only time the subject of mental health is ever brought up in mainstream discourse is whenever there is a mass shooting. This is a huge problem for so many reasons.
First of all, if mental illness is only brought up in regards to mass shootings, it reinforces the erroneous idea that there is a correlation between mental illness and violent behavior. The large majority of people afflicted with any sort of mental illness are not violent. It’s highly offensive to plant that connection in the greater public’s head, especially considering how misunderstood mental illness is already.
As if this isn’t egregious enough, mental illness is brought up in discussions as a diversion away from other pertinent issues surrounding the circumstances. Pundits and media figures will defer to mental illness to deflect attention from access to guns or from the assailant’s actual motives. Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina was not the actions of a man not in the right frame of mind. He went to a church that he knew had an extensive history of civil rights and black solidarity. He took pictures of himself holding Confederate flags and wearing a jacket with patches of Apartheid flags of South Africa and Rhodesia. Right before he opened fire, he said this:
“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
There was a clear political motive behind Roof’s shooting and it should have been acknowledged more. But it’s much easier to deflect to mental illness than it is to confront the malignant system of white supremacy that influenced his outlook, right? Way to simultaneously throw the millions of nonviolent people afflicted with mental illness and the black victims of racism under the bus! Great job! Mental illness was also used to deflect Elliot Rodger’s motives behind his killings in Santa Barbara. I won’t say that Rodger didn’t have mental health issues (that godforsaken 140-page manifesto he wrote makes that quite clear), but he also had a clear and unambiguous political motive behind his attack:
“For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires. All because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, but never to me. I’m 22-years-old and still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. I’ve been through college, for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I’m still a virgin. It has been very torturous.
College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. But in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime because I don’t know what you don’t see in me.”
“I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male. [Laughs.] Yes. After I’ve annihilated every single girl in the sorority house, I’ll take to the streets of Isla Vista and slay every single person I see there. All those popular kids who live such lives of hedonistic pleasure while I’ve had to rot in loneliness for all these years, they’ve all looked down upon me every time I’ve tried to go out and join them. All treated me like a mouse. Well now I will be a god compared to you. You’ll all be animals. You are animals, and I will slaughter you like animals. I’ll be a god exacting my retribution on all those who deserve it. And you do deserve it. Just for the crime of living a better life than me.”
Even as mental illness is only brought up in regards to some sort of violent act, it’s only brought up in regards to white men who go on shooting sprees. The shooting of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco by Francisco Sanchez is being used by opportunists like Donald Trump to stoke fears about Mexican immigrants illegally crossing the border to commit crimes in the US. Or anytime a Muslim man goes on a shooting spree, we’re quick to call it a coordinated terrorist attack and we once again fall back on that same bigoted “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric regarding Muslim-majority countries and the West that motivated the Chapel Hill resident Craig Stephen Hicks to open fire on Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Oh wait, that was just mental illness too, right? Or how about the Sikh Temple shooting by the white supremacist Michael Wade Page? Or how about the Holocaust Museum shooting by the other white supremacist James Wenneker von Brunn? There is something seriously wrong with a society that uses mental illness as a deflection away from confronting the white supremacist and/or misogynistic attitudes that beget violence yet is quick to assume African American victims of violence or brutality are “thugs” or somehow had their demise coming.
Another big reason that the stigma attached to mental illness pervades is because on other occasions that aren’t tragedies, we make no attempt in trying to understand the ways that mental disorders affect people. Our dominant discourse promotes an outlook on life that’s individualistic, selfish, and disconnected from one another. On top of that, it places a person’s value in whether or not he/she is happy. Sadness and adversity is regarded with scorn and apathy, especially on social media. With everybody putting on a veneer of bliss, the unhappy person just feels more alone and his/her choices are either to fake bliss themselves or be honest about their emotional pain and risk being ostracized even further. Most blogs, advice columns, or pop psychology sites that even address mental illness stresses that the person afflicted is not alone and there is always someone to reach out to. And in those moments that the afflicted person is seeking out support or validation, most of these same sites respond by stating some obnoxious misinformation like the ever popular “nobody can love you until you love yourself first”. As if the person afflicted doesn’t already feel isolated and unlovable, why do so many sites and “experts” pour salt all over their emotional wounds with statements like this? This statement makes no attempt to understand what the afflicted person is going through or validate their feelings, it just insults them by telling them to “get over it” or else in a way that disguises how condescending it really is. I heard this statement a lot as a struggled with my own depression and anxiety and all it ever did was make me feel more ashamed for having depression and anxiety.
Let’s jump back a bit to the subject of misogyny and white supremacy that I touched on two paragraphs ago. I’m alarmed that almost none of our discourse draws connections between systemic discrimination and mental illness. We live in a society that tells women over and over that they only exist in relation to men and their value is only based on if they can please men. The legacy of slavery still affects the psychology of African Americans to this day, especially because the US simply substituted it with other systems of subjugation (Jim Crow, the prison-industrial complex) when it came to an end. Our society invalidates those whose sexual affiliations don’t align with the imposed heteronormativity and compulsory sexuality through further stigmatization and erasure. These systems even have adverse psychological effects on those in the privileged classes. Whatever was going wrong with Dylann Roof’s life, the pervasive racism in our society convinced him to direct his anger towards black people. Elliot Rodger internalized the perception men were entitled to women and that a man’s masculinity is tied to his sexual conquests. He hated himself and hated women even more when he failed to live up to this standard of toxic masculinity. We live in a society that tells us to hate ourselves, so it’s all the more insulting in this context when the most popular advice for those suffering through mental disorder is the cynical “nobody can love you until you love yourself first”.
I’ve been extremely critical of our mainstream discourse so far, but I would be lying if I said that they completely left those afflicted with mental illness out to dry. The solutions they offer for mental despair is almost always some sort of overpriced merchandise or some expensive habit. I saw a news story not too long ago that referred to adult coloring books as “the new therapy” by citing testimonials of people using the coloring books claiming that the hobby made them feel less depressed. I completely understand that. In my own depressive episodes, one the of the only activities that made me feel less horrible was drawing. Drawing let my mind only focus on the picture I was creating, which took my mind off of all the negative feelings and self-hatred. My mind was at peace in that moment that I was drawing. But never for a moment would I suggest that drawing or coloring books is a replacement for therapy. Neither of these activities allow the sufferer to express their feelings to someone nor do they directly address the imbalance that is going on in the brain. The relief I felt drawing was only temporary. It’s not a long-term solution to my mental health issues by itself. I think it’s disgusting that major corporations in collusion with major media outlets would take advantage of people’s mental health issues in order to profit off of insignificant material objects.
I’m currently in a better place emotionally than I’ve been in the recent past, but my own struggles with mental disorders have made me pessimistic about our society’s treatment of mental health over all. If we collectively don’t start seriously giving a damn about this pernicious epidemic of mental illness, more people are going to feel alone and unloved and more dead bodies are just going to pile up.