Last week, I read this column by Aziz Ansari in the New York Times about how Donald Trump makes him scared for his family. It’s an important message: people like Trump (and plenty who are less obvious and less powerful than him) make the U.S. more violent and less safe when they make it socially acceptable to be racist. It may not be safe to be a muslim in the U.S. right now, and that’s something that deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.
And then I got to this part:
One way to decrease the risk of terrorism is clear: Keep military-grade weaponry out of the hands of mentally unstable people, those with a history of violence, and those on F.B.I. watch lists.
“Keep the guns away from the mentally unstable people.”
Let’s break this down.
First of all, I completely agree that keeping military-grade weapons out of the hands of people who might do violence makes sense. Buy why name the “mentally unstable”?
I mean, who really needs military-grade weapons anyway? Nobody needs them, unless you’re planning to commit murder. So why are they being sold at all? I don’t think I need to explain that further, because I think my readers (and Aziz Ansari) understand this argument.
So why say “mentally unstable”?
This idea gets thrown around all. the. time. If you read the news at all, you should be familiar with the theory that mental disorders cause mass shootings, and if we just do keep the guns away from people with a history of mental health issues, the shootingss will stop. But we know that is not actually true. It doesn’t work that way.
Mental illness has become a scapegoat for systemic violence.”Mentally unstable” is not a diagnosis, or a medical term at all. “Mental disorder” is understood as a category, but it is so broad it’s almost meaningless, because it includes everything from anxiety to autism to psychosis, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder – all incredibly different, and all having different relationships with violence.
I believe that people talk about violence this way because they are looking for a simple and logical explanation for horrific events like the Orlando shooting. The problem with blaming the mentally ill, apart from the fact that it’s factually wrong, is that it distracts from the real problem.
In most cases, hatred is the real cause of violence. In the case of the Orlando shootings, it’s pretty obvious that homophobia played a big role. Of course, talking about homophobia and hatred is harder than blaming an illness, because homophobia is such a difficult thing to tackle, and it’s easier to blame an individual who is “sick”.
This scapegoating represents a misunderstanding of what mental illness is, and contributes to stigma. As one researcher said:
the distortion is leading to a stigmatization of people with mental illness, sometimes preventing them from seeking treatment or even becoming victims of housing and employment discrimination, which in turn often perpetuates the problem.
This is a direct cause of stigma. When we throw around the word “mentally unstable”, speaking as if it is inherently violent and worthy of trembling in fear, we are directly creating stigma.
This is the reason we are still afraid to tell our friends and family what we are really dealing with and what our real needs are. We are scared to ask for support through our real illnesses. This is the reason that so many kids are afraid to talk about their issues.
Just like it’s not okay to blame all muslims for the actions of a few, it’s also not okay to pin the actions of some criminals on all of us who live with mental illness. Doing so makes us less safe.
I absolutely believe that guns should not exist except in some specific situations, and military-grade weapons shouldn’t exist at all. Of course, this is a tough sell, and it’s easier to just say “let’s not give weapons to people who are mentally ill”, than to have a complex conversation about hatred and violence in our society.
But equating mental illness with violence in the eyes of the law is a dangerous road. When we equate mental illness with being violent or dangerous, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen, of how mental illness could be further criminalized. I’m afraid that background checks, which are supposed to keep violent people from certain jobs, will hurt people who have no history of violence at all. That people with depression or autism won’t be allowed to cross borders, buy hunting rifles, or work with kids.
If I had a chance to speak with Aziz Ansari, I would let him know that if you’re going to write about mental illness, you need to know what you are talking about, and be specific. You need to think what you are saying and what kind of impact it’s going to have on people.
Learn to know the difference between mental illness and pure hatred, and what role they each play in society.
Otherwise you risk putting us in danger.