Don’t Call Us Dangerous. Don’t Call Us “the Mentally Ill.”
I was in the psychiatric hospital when I saw the news. There had been a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Numerous fatalities and injuries. I gathered around the television with a group of fellow patients, horrified and heartbroken. We watched as the details trickled in. We talked. We comforted each other. As the sun moved across the common room and started to sink, the reporters began speculating about a possible connection between mental illness and gun violence. They began discussing how the “dangerously mentally ill” are responsible for such horrific acts. The crowd around me began to thin. People sighed and retreated back to their rooms. Those reporters were talking about us. They were calling us violent. They were calling us dangerous.
At that moment, I felt angry. I felt acute tension between two significant parts of my life — the part of me that was receiving treatment for bipolar disorder alongside other patients with chronic mental illness and the part of me that works in gun violence prevention. In gun violence prevention, it’s not uncommon to hear terms like “dangerously mentally ill” or encounter people who want to prevent those with mental illness from purchasing guns based on a diagnosis. Keeping guns away from people with mental illness is one of the most universally agreed-upon gun violence prevention proposals; one survey showed that 89 percent of adults believe those with mental illness should not be allowed to own firearms. There’s just one problem: the evidence doesn’t support this strategy.
Research shows that mental illness is not a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence. In fact, only four percent of interpersonal violence is attributable to mental illness alone. It is true that some of the most high-profile mass shootings involved perpetrators who may have been affected by mental illness. But blaming mental illness in these situations is akin to blaming maleness — after all, these shooters are usually men. We cannot categorically blame a single characteristic or an entire demographic when tragedies occur. We must take a more data-driven approach and examine individual behavior in order to accurately identify dangerous people. Rather than focusing on mental illness, new gun laws should consider data-driven risk factors for dangerousness, such as a history of domestic violence or substance abuse.
The idea that mental illness is synonymous with violence stems from a long history of misunderstanding and discrimination. It is a concept that has been — and continues to be — perpetuated by people on all sides of the political spectrum. Whether it comes from a reporter or the National Rifle Association or an ally in the gun violence prevention movement, when I see the term “dangerously mentally ill,” I cringe. When I hear someone refer to “the mentally ill” — an enormous, diverse group of people who have many other, more important identities — it hurts. It feels personal. I think about myself and all the people I’ve met in treatment. I am not violent. They are not violent. And we are more than our illnesses. We are employees, sisters, brothers, parents, spouses, activists, leaders, citizens. We don’t want to be known as “the mentally ill.” We are your neighbors and coworkers and friends — even if you don’t recognize it.
And people don’t. Countless times, people have made derogatory comments about “being bipolar” without realizing they are talking to someone who actually lives with it. I’ve lost track of all the off-handed comments about “the mentally ill” I’ve heard from individuals who would never say such things if they knew my story. People often use the term “the mentally ill” without realizing that they are likely referring to someone within earshot. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year. For those who have little experience with mental illness, this number might seem surprisingly high. For those of us who live with it, engaging and being productive while managing our symptoms, it’s not surprising at all. The stigma surrounding these illnesses forces people to hide, to become good at concealing their symptoms. It is strong enough to keep many people from disclosing their illnesses to anyone. And it makes people less likely to speak up and defend themselves when someone makes an insensitive comment or proposes a discriminatory policy.
Because that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about stigma and terms like “the mentally ill” and “the dangerously mentally ill” — discrimination against people with mental illness. We’re conditioning the public to make generalizations about and fear a large portion of society. We’re teaching people to be ashamed if they exhibit symptoms of mental illness. We’re discouraging help-seeking behavior. We’re labeling 20 percent of the population incompetent, unstable, or dangerous — in spite of evidence that tells us the vast majority of these people will never be violent. That’s not right. We must begin viewing stigma as discrimination, and we must begin viewing discrimination against mental illness the same way we view discrimination against other unchangeable characteristics.
As I left the hospital after the Parkland massacre, I said goodbye to the people I’d gotten to know. I was feeling much better, but I had a long road to recovery ahead. They gave me inspirational notes, well-wishes, drawings, hugs. Silently, I vowed I would stand up for myself and these people I lived with — the same people politicians, members of the media, and even some activists were painting as dangerous and violent.
“You have a unique perspective,” an older woman said as I turned to leave. “Use it.”
If we want the gun violence prevention movement as a whole to be successful, we need to hear everyone’s perspective — including people with mental illness. And in order to include them, we must fight discrimination and stop using stigmatizing language. We must make the gun violence prevention movement a safe space to disclose mental health issues. We must learn all we can about mental illness. We must hear their voices and take them into account.
I am using my voice. I am embracing my perspective. I am lucky to work for an organization that values my experience and is working to fight stigma and decouple mental illness and interpersonal violence. The anger, the deep internal fracture I felt the day of the Parkland massacre has gradually transformed into resolve. I am a person with lived experience and a person who wants to advance evidence-based policy. I am someone who lives with bipolar and someone who wants to be defined by my victories, not my struggles. I am someone who wants to end gun violence and someone who refuses to use mental illness as a scapegoat. These parts of who I am are not incompatible; each is a crucial piece of the conversation.
Bryan Barks is the executive editor at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
If you — or someone you know — need(s) help, call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.