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Gun Violence is a Mental Health Issue, Not a Mental Illness Issue. Yes, There’s a Difference

Words matter.

image: Shutterstock Crying Angry Man Shutterstock Stock Photo

Like clockwork, whenever a school shooting happens, we all run around like chickens without heads either trying to pinpoint one singular cause of this tragic, yet all-too-frequent phenomenon, or insisting that there is no problem and there’s nothing to be done.

One thing that continually comes up is the role of “mental illness” in relation to gun violence. Gun violence is not caused by mental illness, but it is a mental health issue, and that’s a small but important distinction that needs to be made.

In a piece over at Slate, writer and psychologist Laura L. Hayes writes, “Violence is not a product of mental illness; violence is a product of anger. When we cannot modulate anger, it will control our behavior.”

Hayes says this after telling a pretty incredible story of a female patient she met in the psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. where she was training as she earned her degree in clinical psychology. The patient had been committed after a long history of being a revolving-door patient. You see, this was during the 1980s, when the Reagan administration led the way in the massive deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill across the country, treating the mentally ill as if they are not worth the money and “reducing the budget” by reducing their care rather than, oh I don’t know, taking from our military budget.

This patient was committed after having stabbed* a man in a supermarket. However, the details of the stabbing might be surprising to some:

“At her commitment hearing, she testified that she had become extremely upset in the grocery store before repeatedly stabbing the man in front of her in the checkout line. The hearing officer, aware of her history and sympathetic to this woman with such a sweet demeanor, asked helpfully if she had been hearing voices at the time. Yes, she replied, she had. “And what were the voices telling you?” the officer inquired supportively. She explained that the voices were telling her not to hurt the man, but he had gotten in the express checkout lane with more than 10 items, and that made her so mad that she couldn’t stop herself.”

Her mental illness actually tried to stop her from getting violent. It was her not having the tools to deal with her anger that ultimately led to her violent act.

Hayes continues to make the distinction between anger and “mental illness” in her piece, talking about the fact that violent acts are almost always committed by violent people. It’s super-rare that a good, law-abiding citizen who knows how to manage their emotions will suddenly do a 180 and “break” enough to actually kill someone. It’s equally rare that shooters and other violent murderers suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses.

However, learning how to manage our emotions and to calibrate our responses to things like anger is indeed a way for us to tend to our mental health. Just like going to the doctor for a regular check-up doesn’t mean you’re sick, tending to your mental health doesn’t mean you are mentally ill.

Earlier today, I saw a piece being shared around from Reader’s Digest (I know. I didn’t think they had a website either. I basically just assumed they were just those little books that piled up at my grandmother’s house). In it, a parent talks about going in to talk to her son’s fifth grade teacher in a conversation that was supposed to be about how she could better help her son learn “new” math, and ended up being something else.

What this teacher would do is take time at the end of class every Friday and ask her students to individually, secret-ballot style, write down four students they’d like to sit with next week, as well as nominate someone they think has been an exemplary classroom citizen. When they’ve done that, they hand their ballots in to her. They know that their seating requests for the following week may or may not be granted.

Then, as the piece goes on to explain:

“Every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns.

  • Who is not getting requested by anyone else?
  • Who can’t think of anyone to request?
  • Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated?
  • Who had a million friends last week and none this week?

You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or “exceptional citizens.” Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”

This approach deals with the loneliness (which can curdle into anger) of the kids who never get chosen, as well as with the anger of those doing the bullying. Left to themselves, these emotions can lead to inappropriate, or even deadly behavior. The point being, a large part of what makes a person capable of choosing to go into a school, or any other public place, with a gun to murder a bunch of people is their inability to cope with basic human emotions.

Far too many of us never learned the tools for how to properly deal with our own emotions. That’s not a mental illness. However, that is a mental health issue. One that our country needs to take more seriously if we’re ever going to become a country where this doesn’t happen anymore.

Oh, and by the way, when we talk about toxic masculinity and the gender element of mass shootings, this is a big piece of that. Women are generally taught to deal with their emotions in healthy ways, whereas emotional literacy is not prioritized in boys and men. Toxic masculinity is basically the manifestation of men not knowing how to handle their anger, so they lash out violently, rather than turning to other, healthier coping mechanisms.

I’m am hugely in favor of increasing gun control. As many supposed checks as states have, and as “annoying” as gun owners might find things like longer waiting periods, or a limit on the types of guns they can purchase, the fact is what we’re doing in this arena isn’t enough. We are a country where most people don’t know how to handle their emotions. It should absolutely be much harder to own a gun. Some guns shouldn’t be available for civilian use all together.

That said, it isn’t only about the guns. While it’s important to make it harder for violent people to commit violent acts by limiting or eliminating their access to guns, the gun violence problem is also about taking mental health care seriously, and prioritizing it from a very early age. We have to say “mental health” rather than “mental illness,” though, because it is rare that shootings are committed by people who are actually, clinically mentally ill, and they don’t need any more of a stigma than they already have against them.

However, there are a whole lot of “mentally healthy” people out there, mostly male, choosing to murder others. With guns. It’s all related, and it isn’t mental illness, but the lack of respect paid to mental health care, that is a huge part of that.

*most mass shooters are male, as when women do get violent, they are less likely to do so with a gun.

(image: Shutterstock)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.