The nation is still grappling with the events that transpired in Oregon last week. As we process the carnage, many reactions have been a rerun of the discourse seen after the other 294 mass shootings across the nation this year. Progressives cry out for better gun control (including, in this case, the shooter’s father). Conservatives have a collective freak out about the government coming for their guns. And politicians, uneasy with the rhetorical war surrounding them, err on the side of caution and point the finger at mental illness.
But despite their best efforts to keep post-tragedy focus on mental illness, it’s not always the case. In fact, studies suggest that, most of the time, it’s not. As Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, explained last year:
A 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as a loner. 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons; 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind — which means three out of four did not.
Studies like this frequently fall on deaf ears. It doesn’t matter that only 3-5% of individuals living with mental illness will ever participate in any kind of violent act. It doesn’t matter that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. In the wake of a shooting, the age-old, inappropriate fear of the mentally ill is reinforced by linking them with incidents of mass violence. We decide political convenience is more important than the dangerous stigma it produces.
John Oliver had a scathing critique of this shameful trend last night, where he artfully highlighted the sordid history of mental health care in the U.S., the woeful state of those services today, and the solutions that could address the problems if only we’d allocate the resources to them. He called on the politicians so eager to point the finger at mental illness after a mass shooting to put their money where their mouth is and actually do something about the problem they so frequently lament.