This was a very painful post for me to write. I am an Indian American woman who is a Social Psychologist. I work as a Diversity and Inclusion consultant, and, as an empowerment and success coach, encouraging people to take control of their own mental wellbeing. I am also a mother who raises her child with immense support from my family while managing five invisible disabilities on a daily basis. All five conditions are issues that could affect my mental health if I don’t manage my life well. Today, I write as this mother and as this woman. I write because if the current trends continue, the world may not be a habitable space for my child and her peers as they grow up. I pen these words on behalf of everyone else that struggles with daily and ongoing mental wellbeing challenges. I will share details of my life that have been intentionally left out of the public forum. While I am intensely uncomfortable and partly terrified to publish this post for the sake of my future job opportunities, I am also convinced that these types of conversations are necessary for me to be able to do my part in advocating for true, authentic, intentional inclusion. So, I stand strong in my truth and the realness of my growth through my past experiences.
On Gun Violence
Since January 1, 2019, the incidents of fatalities and injuries because of mass shootings have grown exponentially, on a daily basis. Conversations about these incidents of mass gun violence keep getting sidetracked by distractions while the next incident and the one after that unfold. There doesn’t even seem to be a consensus on what constitutes a mass shooting. Yet, throughout all of this, politicians and lobbyists keep dictating the appropriateness of having honest and candid conversations about the underlying issues that lead to gun violence. While progressives scream for gun law reform, societal reform, and, conversations about the hatred, supremacist ideals and vitriol that are the underlying causes of these atrocities, there are others who don’t think that the our nation’s gun violence problem has anything to do with guns. Instead, they use distractors such as mental wellbeing (or lack thereof in the form of mental illness) to derail from the matters at hand. They offer thoughts and prayers instead of focusing on gun law policy and real change, as if whatever Gods are out there are going to magically fix this man-made gun violence problem.
It has been increasingly frustrating and infuriating to listen to discussions over the bogus correlations between gun violence and mental illness over the past several years. But, lately, media heads and the general public seem to have taken on the role of armchair social scientists. They seem to use science in the most illogical and twisted ways I’ve seen, at their convenience. They treat science as just another weapon in these conversations about assault rifles, guns and the Second Amendment. As a social scientist and a woman who helps others and myself with mental wellbeing challenges, I am categorically not okay with this.
The “Science” behind Gun Violence Stats
To address the science behind the connection between gun violence and mental illness, there is no question that there is bound to be some overlap between those who commit gun violence and those who are mentally ill. But the picture being presented is horrifically distorted. The Wall Street Journal put out a commentary that reports from federal agencies show that the majority of the perpetrators in gun violence incidents have histories of mental disturbances and illnesses. They present these statistics as if they don’t need more proof that the underlying root cause behind gun violence is mental illness. This is utterly disingenuous, and frankly, completely irresponsible. The data are being presented in a way to show a bogus relationship – that the majority of those who committed gun violence had untreated mental illnesses. This absolutely does not mean that those who have mental wellbeing challenges are prone to gun violence. This is supported by reports from several mental health organizations over the years that show that 95-97 percent of those with mental illnesses are not prone to violence against others.
Scientifically, these superficially sound yet truly bogus connections are called illusory correlations. In this case, the unknown, unaddressed and untreated mental wellbeing challenges that these perpetrators have had are scientifically called “confounding factors”. In plain English this means that the real correlation is between gun violence and something else, and mental health issues muddle the clarity of the picture. Whatever that something else is, it is not mental illness. Here are some more statistics pulled from reports of the general, overall American population to show what I mean.
The Picture of our Mental Health
In the past year alone, approximately 1 in 5 American adults have had serious mental health challenges affected their daily functioning to some degree. When we look at this in population numbers, it means that nearly 50 million Americans have dealt with feeling mentally unwell, just in the past year. Only 41% of this segment was able to receive the professional help they needed. Then there is the fact that people who are severely mentally ill are also more likely to be the victims of violence and repeated traumatic incidents that exacerbate their illnesses.
This brings me to my second reason for using my voice and personal story to address this issue. As someone who was mentally ill for several years, I was violent – toward myself and not toward others. It manifested in the form of internal negative ruminations and mental beat downs that I was not good enough to be fit. It happened every time I faced the stigmas, obstacles, and a complete lack of support on conversations about mental health, from everyone around me. I do mean everyone, because even the most well-intentioned well-wishers only came at me with toxic positivity rants about how I just need to power through that phase for everything to be okay, and how things could be much worse. Even so, at no point in my journey did I ever think to harm anyone else. There were times in my past where was mentally unwell to the point where I isolated myself from most of society. I turned into a mere shade of my whole self for several years before I helped myself out of the hole I was in. But, at the end of the day, I did get myself out of the abyss that can be depression and anxiety, and, soared to the heights that I coast along these days.
My mental illness may or may not be even remotely related to anyone else’s. Mental wellbeing challenges are intensely and intricately unique to the individual who has them. And this is what deeply offends me about the current national rhetoric on mental wellbeing and gun violence. The conversations that are happening have the danger of pigeonholing the millions of us who only want to get better with criminals who acted out of pure hatred and superiority. Most people with mental wellbeing challenges want help and support, and seek it voluntarily. Most of us don’t commit acts of violence and crimes. The majority of us can’t stand violence because it upsets the delicate act of balancing our emotions to function effectively. By using this rhetoric, America is rendering the truths about mental wellbeing completely invisible. By continuing this trend, the American populace is re-stigmatizing every aspect of progress we have made on the mental health front, especially in a national mental healthcare system that is severely underfunded and understaffed. Grouping all of us with criminals makes us less likely to be open about our challenges, and it does literally nothing to monitor or check those who are able to freely purchase weapons with the intent of serious and catastrophic harm.
The Disproportionate Use of Mental Health Reasons in Gun Violence
Then there is the fact that mental health as the cause of gun violence only seems to be brought up when the perpetrators are White or Caucasian. Yet, in incidents of violence where the attackers are from any other ethnic or cultural background, entire Black and Brown communities get immediately blamed for terrorist attacks against the United States. This is so deeply problematic on so many levels because here are the false messages it sends:
- Mental health and wellbeing concerns and conversations are privileges that only apply to the White community.
- White people can’t be terrorists.
- Black/Brown communities don’t have mental wellbeing challenges; they only have violence and drug problems.
- Mental wellbeing challenges look the same for everyone
As we should know, all of those messages are blatantly false. As minority communities, we bear the brunt of having disproportionate access to culturally competent mental health and wellbeing practitioners and providers. We also have disproportionate access to guns because of our skin colors and tones. Then there is the burden of having our cultural and ethnic values, traditions and practices being labeled as abnormal or deviant compared to the White baseline. Yet, even as productive citizens in the American society, we don’t get the same benefit of the doubt that White terror-wreaking criminals get.
Ultimately, this whole issue really ticks me off because it takes away from the real issue behind our national gun violence problem that needs to be addressed – guns. More specifically, the problem is that many individuals “who look a certain way” have an easy access to build up an arsenal of weapons of war and mass destruction without question, whereas others “who look a different way” don’t even have access to basic life necessities. As it stands, thanks to pro-gun organizations, people have more access to assault rifles than they do to healthcare resources, and mental health practitioners who understand them. Because of lobbyists, currently, guns and assault rifles seem to have more rights than women, people of color, immigrants, children, and, people with disabilities. And this is why things are messed up.
Let me be perfectly clear on my stance on this controversial fork in our nation’s road to progress: Yes, we need a better and more sustainable focus on empowering people to take control of their mental wellbeing, especially by providing the resources and spaces that enable better health. But, also, yes, better regulation of access to weapons and weapons ownership is the real issue here. It an entirely separate conversation that should not be conflated with talks about our mental health. So let us separate the two issues and view them for what they are. We are not doing ourselves any favors by marginalizing a fifth of our entire national population. We all need help with our mental wellbeing. This help is factually unrelated to the reality of the easy access we have to assault rifles and weapons of war in our society. We need to do better on both fronts to make progress towards a healthier, and more inclusive America.