Secondhand Victims

Mental Illness in a Culture of Violence

Turning the Mind Inside Out

In the aftermath of any mass violence, the desperate impulse to understand why it happened tends to overshadow the grim reality of or any sincere effort to mourn the tragedy. The response to shootings in particular often splits along party lines, creating a false dichotomy of causation between inadequate gun laws and a failing mental health system. The former pokes at an infection that festers when capitalism commodifies personal liberty; the latter exploits an historical scapegoat that dates back centuries.

The NRA rhetoric would have us believe that guns are an inalienable right of all Americans — unless you’re mentally ill (or poor and black). Only then do these tools of sport or self-defense become weapons. But this position takes for granted that we all agree on what it means to be mentally ill in the first place. While pundits, lobbyists, and politicians appear to have a very specific diagnostic stance, most mental health workers understand the picture is not so clear.

Even after some initial observation, there’s no guarantee we ever understand the extent of one’s pathology. But immediately following a mass shooting, we rarely have any indication of the “true” nature of the perpetrator’s state of mind. Without a doubt, the behavior is aberrant, violent, and disturbing. But the trajectory of humanity is propelled by violence, a savagery of degrees shaped by the survivor’s narrative.

By now, it’s almost cliché to point out the vastly overstated link between mental illness and violence. This brings to mind another trope, that most serial killers tortured animals as children. While the data might prove out, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a child who once burned ants with a magnifying glass will inevitably commit murder. In other words, histories of violence are not always so linear — just as the line between mental health and illness is not always so definitive.

America has a tenuous relationship with psychopathology, an attitude based in fear and bent toward eradication. In medicalizing non-normative behavior — in diagnosing it as an “illness” — we objectify the symptoms but overlook the causes. And we tranquilize these behaviors at the expense of understanding them. By erasing any external manifestation of one’s internal state, we delude ourselves into believing the root conditions never existed in the first place. We thus sooth ourselves with labeling the enigmatic nature of mental illness as a threat to order and reason — to our very way of life. But the price of our collective comfort always comes at the expense of the individual’s essential subjectivity.

Just as James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates exposed the sacrifices of the black body to the American experiment, we might also examine the exploitation of the “sick mind.” We project our worst impulses onto that sick mind. We see this sick mind not as a condition of any collective illness but instead the cause. This sick mind is the source and expression of society’s faults and failures.

Blaming violence on mental illness reflects our desire for quick fixes. But this catch-all is a distraction — from how violence is not alien to our culture but rather a product of it. The painful reality is pathology can be both transient and contagious. And just as any diagnosis is an approximation, a non-diagnosis is a wish. For when the psychopath kills, he is mentally ill; but when he succeeds in business, he gives Ted Talks.

Again, the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent.

The uncertainty inherent in this premise might be frightening. If people who shoot children are not ill in the way we traditionally understand “crazy” (e.g., homeless and hearing voices), then what exactly are they? Their behavior is without a doubt deviant and destructive. Worse, there is no clear evidence that this violence was necessarily avoidable. Sadly, Nikolas Cruz is an example of just how spectacularly systems can fail. But these safety nets are a loosely wound fabric made up of people who make mistakes despite their best attentions — and disturbed individuals slip through.

This makes me wonder what difference it might make — to families of the victims, in society, within the broader debate — to know precisely how the DSM would diagnose the Parkland, Las Vegas, or Orlando shooters. It’s only natural to seek answers. But there’s no assurance we’ll be satisfied with what we find. Some perpetrators even have a stated “reason” for their violence — perhaps a grievance or having suffered physical and emotional abuse. In the case of Dylann Roof in Charleston, we could look to his racist manifesto. Despite the legal distinction between irrational acts of insanity and ugly acts of hatred, both are “crazy” in a universal sense.

Violence exists on a psychological spectrum — of what might be guided by a declared motivation and what is without explanation. It unfolds as a relativity between an individual’s contact with “us” (i.e., reality) and his or her fantasies. One might say that to knowingly take any life is “crazy.” But again, entire societies are founded on the premise of justified killing. Not so long ago slavery was legal. And even today the state still executes its citizens.

Violence is not always an issue of mere intention. It is also a scourge of expedience and an expression of need. Perhaps we are no more violent than our prehistoric ancestors. Then, death and murder was a daily occurrence — though also a necessary function of survival. Today, we’re simply more efficient at killing. We outsource violence to factory farms that feed us, police departments that patrol us, and military units that protect us.

And in the fear for our personal safety and desire for more security, we design progressively more effective means of killing. A nation that relies on nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrence is already hopelessly inclined toward irrational violence. And the capacity for total annihilation is an expression of the very kind of alternating void, paranoia, and psychosis that the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein envisioned in the inchoate infant mind. In anxiety, we regress.

And yet, one can acquire portable weapons of mass destruction at a local sporting goods store. Any gun that can rapidly discharge bullets is its own nuclear missile. If “mass” merely implies a majority, then Adam Lanza discharged a WMD in Sandy Hook, Omar Mateen struck first at Pulse, and Stephen Paddock obliterated the Route 91 Harvest festival.


While individual motivation might be inscrutable, a gun rarely fails to fulfill its purpose. Guns are unambiguous. Mass killing is abnormal, and yet slaughtering innocent people without discrimination is quite easy to accomplish in this country.

This makes one question whether our access to weaponry is “insane” in a clinical sense or merely a dialectical one. The NRA argues that the best protection from a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Irrespective of the statistics that prove good guys with guns often only add to the carnage, this premise betrays a collective fantasy: that there is an objective “good” and “evil.” An impartial evaluation of intention is likewise a fantasy. Sure, there are people with hatred in their heart who want to perpetrate violence. But is it enough to simply say they are crazy?

The same paranoia and self-attack that might plague an individual with schizophrenia seems completely rational in a society so oriented around a fear of outsiders and others. It is thus unfair to blame disturbed individuals who conceive of themselves at the center of a narrative of terror when their country permits violence just to reassure voters who happen to belong to a sanctioned nonprofit that advocates for gun rights.

And yet, to me, the belief that one must own a gun to protect himself and his family seems, literally, crazy. The paranoia that drives mass shooters appears to be a mere degree from everyday accepted reason. And to fault mental illness for irrational violence is to project our basest instincts onto the most vulnerable populations among us. Our mentally ill brothers and sisters do not deserve blame for social ills; rather, they deserve a functioning support system that can alleviate their ills.

And we all deserve a better vocabulary to address this violence. When it is political, the perpetrators are “terrorists.” But when we cannot find a reasonable explanation, these offenders are simply “mentally ill.” Yet, despite any disagreement among us about the root causes of mass shootings, the one unifying variable somehow still remains the WMDs that make ours a uniquely sick culture.