#BreakingTheBinary: Guns or Mental Illness?

19 September 2019

Country: United States

by: Anna Lekas Miller

Screen_Shot_2019-09-18_at_3.40.01_PMEvery time a mass shooting occurs, a familiar narrative plays out across the US media. We need gun control—now! There is a mental health crisis—guns don’t kill people, people kill people. We need more funding for mental healthcare. He is a troubled youth—a sociopath with no friends, and strange habits.

Racial justice advocates point out that if the shooter were Muslim, he would immediately be called a terrorist—but as a white man he is a “lone wolf” or “loose canon.”

But what about this “loose canon” narrative?

“Every time there is an incident of mass gun violence, one of the fastest ways to avoid addressing relevant social issues is to pivot to mental illness,” Center for American Progress Disability Rights Researcher Azza Al-Tiraifi told Media Diversity Institute.However, this narrative is not actually grounded in accuracy. According to research from the National Council on Behavioral findings, there is no correlation between mass shootings and the shooter’s mental health. According to advocates, this ableist narrative is harming disabled communities.

“Look at what happened at Columbine,” said Lydia XZ Brown, a disability rights advocate based in the United States.

“When the media said that the problem was mental illness, schools responded with a “zero tolerance” approach to certain behaviors,” they continued. “As a result, the rise of zero tolerance schools and policies in the United States lead to the mass over-discipline of black and brown kids, particularly black and brown disabled kids.”

Researchers Jillian Peterson of Hamline University and James Densley of Metropolitan State University to the National Council on Behavioral Health’s findings one step further, spending two years analyzing more than fifty years of mass shootings in the United States. They found that in addition to the fact that mass shootings and mental illnesss are not necessarily correlated, the majority of shooters do share four other common traits: childhood trauma, a harbored grievance, a fascination with others who committed similar types of killings and easy access to lethal weapons.

“It is much more politically expedient to blame mental illness, than to actually address any of the evidence-based reasons that contributes to gun violence,” Al-Tiraifi continues, pointing out that politicians are far more hesitant to address topics like toxic masculinity, availability of guns, and the rise of militant white nationalism.

Politicians aren’t the only ones pushing this narrative. Journalists also play a role in stigmatizing disabled communities—particularly when it comes to speculating about the mental health of the attacker in the aftermath of a shooting. Instead of fact-checking diagnoses of untreated mental illness against medical records or family members’ testimony, irresponsible journalists have interviewed neighbors and acquaintances, or joined the rumor mill on social media.

As always, language matters—both in the short and long-term. Al-Tiraifi argues that how we talk about disability, whether this is among politicians, in the media, or among each other, upholds systems of oppression.

“We use language like crazy and insane—language that inherently categorizes mentally ill people as being ‘the other,’” she continues.

“If [mentally ill people] are categorized as the other, it is not that big of a leap to argue that they are dangerous.”

In the United States, mentally ill people are disproportionately—and often unfairly—criminalized. A disproportionate number of mentally ill people make up the both the prison and immigration detention populations. Many people suffering from the more severe mental illnesses are unemployed or underpaid, causing a disproportionate number to be homeless or otherwise living in poverty.

But as much as the media is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. For one, journalists can start by critically analyzing the popular claim that mental illness leads to gun violence, and investigate whether or not there is any evidence supporting claims about the shooter’s mental health. If there is no evidence, journalists should use existing data about the actual most statistically common traits shared among mass shooters to guide their reporting.

“When a journalist emphasizes a mass shooter’s mental illness, they’re actually furthering harm,” Lydia continued. “What they’re actually saying is, lets focus on mental illness as a cause rather than white supremacist violence, capitalist violence, or misogynistic violence.”

On the rare occasion when mental illness does play a role in the shooter’s story, it is the journalist’s responsibility to specify which type of mental illness, and whether or not there were additional factors—like a lack of diagnosis or treatment—which could have pushed them to commit a crime.

Otherwise, journalists can correct these narratives by reporting fairly and accurately about gun violence—shedding light on the myriad other ways that lead to such a widespread societal problem. Instead of using mass shootings as a springboard to discuss mental illness and suicide prevention, journalists can make a conscious choice to refuse to make a false correlation between the two, and pitch stories that do both topics justice.

For more of our coverage of mass shootings and the media, check out Jean-Paul Marthoz’s article  on white nationalism and Verica Rupar’s essay on the ethics of care here. For more on disability and the media, check out our project, Disability: A Matter of Perception.