The Orlando Nightclub shooting left 49 dead and 53 injured. It has been purported by the media to be the ‘worst mass shooting by a single gunman in US history’. It was a single, tragic act of violence that resulted in the loss of many innocent lives and the upheaval of countless others.
Yet as heartbreaking as it is to hear of such horrific things, I am not writing this entry to highlight what everybody already knows – any decent human being can watch this kind of news unfold from behind the safety of their television sets and only begin to imagine the emotional turmoil that gun violence leaves in its wake. On the other hand, what many people don’t seem to immediately comprehend is just how influential these kind of events are in determining how people perceive mental illness. In fact, I would even go as far as to suggest that it is disturbing circumstances such as mass shootings where mental illness as a subject is most prominently in the public eye.
I have lost count the number of times that a mass shooting makes its way into the news headlines , and the predictable nature of the comments I see plastered all over the internet;
‘What an absolute nutter’
‘He must have been mentally unhinged’
All of these derogatory comments which would be deemed as socially unacceptable in any other context are thrown about recklessly and without reprimand. As understandable as it may be for people to react emotionally to this sort of tragedy, it pains me that no real thought goes into just how damaging making these kind of observations about mental illness are. Take a look at the following statistics to get an idea of where I’m coming from;
- In a recent survey, of people who themselves were a victim of a violent crime, only 1% believed that that incident occurred because their attacker had a mental illness.
- Another study seems to suggest that only 4% of interpersonal violence in the United States can be attributed to mental illness.
- It is also worth noting that one in four people are said to experience mental health problems at some point, but 25% of the population haven’t killed someone or committed a violent crime.
So essentially what this indicates is that, even if in some ideal world nobody with mental health issues were in possession of a firearm, it would only ever solve of 4 to 5% of gun violence in the US. Of course this is only taking into account somebody’s mental health as the sole factor – it is well known that abusing substances can and, in some cases, does lead to a tendency to engage in violent behaviour.
Warped views like this are only exacerbated when you consider that President Obama recently announced a ‘$500 million investment toward improving access to care and treatment services’, in response to public pressure on tackling gun violence. While the investment by itself can only be a good thing, it is the fact that it was carried out as part of an effort to reduce gun violence that diminishes its intended effect . The fact is, there is no single reason as to why a certain kind of person goes out of their way to take the lives of so many.Instead, it is on a variety of factors, ranging from race and socioeconomic position, to religion and genetics, that makes a person what he or she is. Even if we, the public at large, consider that person to be a monster.
If mental illness isn’t responsible for these mass shootings, then what is?
Despite all of this however, there always appears to be one common factor in these ‘lone wolf’ attacks on the innocent. Something so blindingly obvious, yet it’s been continually overlooked by the media as a possible motivation for why these killers do what do they do.
Pure unadulterated anger.
This is not to say that experiencing moments of intense rage is by any means abnormal. That would be a ludicrous statement to make. Anger is one of our primary emotions. Instead what I refer to is the kind of impulsive, explosive form of anger that seemingly comes out of nowhere. You may know someone like this in your own life. They are the sort of person who cannot manage their anger in a constructive way and so smash things and scream their lungs out as a form of release.
It’s this kind of anger that the Orlando shooter , Omar Mateen frequently displayed if the comments by those that had come across him are anything to go by:
-Sitora Yusifiy, his ex wife, said ‘he beat me. He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that’
-Daniel Gilroy, a former colleague of the mass murderer, said that “I quit because everything he said was toxic,” ,and added that ‘the company wouldn’t do anything. This guy was unhinged and unstable. He talked of killing people.”
-Even his school assessment noted that he was ‘constantly moving, verbally abusive, rude, aggressive,’and sure enough he was disciplined more than 30 times in elementary and middle schools as he pursued attention and occasional conflict rather than his studies.
While this offers only glimpses into the mind of a killer , it certainly paints the picture of someone who wasn’t just occasionally angry, but arguably fuelled by it from when he was an adolescent up until he slaughtered a group of strangers whose only ‘crime’ was their sexual orientation. Indeed, considering his reported outrage at witnessing two men sharing a kiss in full view of his son and homophobic comments , it isn’t too difficult to see how such a tragedy could have unfolded.
Now contrary to popular belief, people with a mental illness are not by definition violent. They are far more likely to be a harm to themselves if a lethal weapon is placed within their vicinity, with ‘suicides accounted for 61% of all firearm fatalities in the United States in 2014’. By following this line of logic, mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of gun violence as opposed to the perpetrators.
Is there a way to stop these horrific attacks from happening?
Unfortunately the devastating impact of mass shootings can never be completely curbed. However there are ways of preventing this kind of gun violence from happening in the first place.
One of these things is to base restriction of access to firearms on those who have a significant arrest history, as opposed to those that have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Those who commit crimes are more likely to be subject to impulsive anger, and thus are more of a danger to the public. Sure enough, in a recent summary of studies, 80 to 90 percent of murderers had prior police records, in contrast to 15 percent of American adults overall.
It is also important to remember that just because a certain kind of person has problems controlling their anger, does not often mean that they themselves are mentally ill. In fact, most of them are not.Yet considering that 9% of the US population possess both serious anger problems and access to firearms in their place of residence, this begs the question as to why those with mental issues are being targeted and not people who actually have a history of violent behaviour.
Now my purpose in writing this was not to undertake a psychological evaluation of Omar Mateen. Rather it is to make people think twice before they associate having a mental illness with having a stronger tendency towards committing violent acts than any other member of the population. I hope I have succeeded at this.
On a final note, I will leave this brilliant quote , which not only reinforces the point of this article, but serves as a reminder of the dangers of stigmatising a vulnerable group of people based on nothing but hearsay:
‘None of us wants to think that we’re a potential murderer, a baby shaker, or a rapist; I get that. But invoking “mental health” as the sole and isolated reason for a 49-body massacre does us no favours as a society. It’s a convenient way to dismiss a very inconvenient truth: that any one of us has the potential, given the right set of circumstances, to do something terrible’
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here