Call It What It Is: Terrorism, Not Mental Illness
As information about Dylann Roof, the gunman responsible for the Charleston church shooting, starts to appear in the media, so begins the inevitable speculation about his mental health.
Across the world, people who will not even think of applying the word ‘terrorist’ to a white person are looking for a reason to explain why the 21-year-old entered a historic black church and opened fire, killing 9 members of a bible study group. The easiest — and by that I mean most comfortable — explanation for this mass-killing, as for others that have occurred in recent years carried out by lone-acting white gunmen, is that the perpetrator must have suffered from a mental illness. In the case of Roof, it looks as though drugs as the cause of such mental imbalance will be held up — by white Republicans, largely — as an excuse for the hate crime committed by this individual. But to draw this most convenient conclusion, is not only silly, it is dangerous. By burying our heads in the sand, convincing ourselves that mental ill health is at the root of these large-scale acts of violence, we ignore the real problems: gun control, domestic terrorism, racism, misogyny, to name a few. Statistics say that gun crime is twenty times more prevalent in the United States than in any other developed country, and yet, the mental health system is not significantly worse. As Barack Obama has said, it is time to face up to the fact that ‘this type of mass violence doesn’t happen in other advanced countries.’ In the US there are roughly 89 firearms to every 100 people, the highest ratio in the world by a long way — the number two country, Yemen, has 55 per 100 people (Canada has 31, Australia 15, the UK 6). US government spending on mental health is on a par with other Western countries. And if that wasn’t enough to sever the false link made between gun crime and mental illness, a study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association concluded that only 3–5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most do not involve guns. On top of that we must consider that, whilst some serious mental illnesses can contribute to the way the sufferer’s beliefs are blown out of proportion and out of touch with reality, mental illness does not cause any specific set of beliefs; it does not plant the seeds of prejudice and hatred in the brain. Racism, misogyny, bigotry of any kind — it is learnt. By blaming mental illness — and the healthcare system for failing to treat or at least contain it — we are conveniently closing our eyes to what is ugliest in our society. But whilst we fail to acknowledge the discriminatory attitudes that run like veins through society, appalling acts of violence as a result of them continue to gush forth.
There’s one more reason why we need to stop using mental illness to excuse the hate crimes committed by white men, and once again it comes down to discrimination: Public attitudes towards mental health are negative enough already. As if living with an illness wasn’t difficult enough, those with the mental variety have considerable social stigma to battle with alongside it: Chaotic, unpredictable, violent, frightening, potential mass-murderers… Every day the misconceptions of those lucky enough not to have been touched by mental illness costs sufferers jobs, relationships and all kinds of opportunities that their healthy counterparts enjoy. False beliefs and negative attitudes prevent people seeking help when they need it: In a study of mental health patients who had thought about going to the doctor in the past year but decided against it, 66% cited reasons that had to do with attitude. And it brings feelings of fear and shame into the heads of people who are struggling enough as it is with what’s going on in there. The effects of public prejudice on top of mental illness itself can, and has, cost lives.
It is easiest to stomach these horrific crimes when we isolate them as one-off incidents committed by deranged individuals, but when this simply isn’t the case we are not only ignoring the real issue of the poisonous prejudice that exists within society, we are exacerbating it. The fact is, if Dylan Roof is mentally ill, the same disease has afflicted millions and millions of white Americans for the last 400 years.