As with most acts of violence that strike a nerve in our society, there have been many discussions and publications on the triggers for the most recent tragedy gaining global recognition. The big questions have been, "Are these acts due to mental illness or hate/racism?" Many people have taken a side on this matter, claiming that one's skewed morals and values cannot be mistaken for mental illness, whether because it "excuses" the behavior or "stigmatizes" mental illness, which already has enough stigma attached. Given that the people of our country often seem to be divided in perception and opinion, but demand we all come together, I thought I would weigh in on the matter.
The real answer to the above question of origin for such violent acts is neither mental illness nor hate; it's rancid recipe of both, with a dashes of ignorance, social norms, and lack of education and exposure to the world outside of one's own bubble. None of these are mutually exclusive from the other, nor can they be solely blamed for anyone's behavior. We all make choices. For some, these choices are well informed, researched, and meticulously executed. For others, these choices are sourced in a lack or minimal presence of information, experience, and planned process.
In a recent article, I read the claim that "most mental health professionals are not even calling this mental illness..." Well, as a mental health professional, I'm certainly not ruling it out. In fact, I know nothing about this young man, except what the media has told me. If I've learned nothing in my life, it's that I cannot openly and whole-heartedly believe everything I'm told by mass media. Why? Well, it's biased, and subject to human error. It's provided by humans, which means it innately comes with at least some degree of bias and error. Facts are based on evidence, but also in perception.
While I agree, the outcome does not change, regardless of the presence of mental illness, the cause or motivation is not entirely insignificant. In order for us to learn about, and hopefully, deter such acts, we must learn as much as possible about the motivations.
As I stated, the mass murder in Charleston, SC involved hatred and ignorance, among other qualifiers. Stating that this is an issue of mental health does not excuse or stigmatize any more than writing if off as an issue of hatred. How many racists or radical extremists have you known in your lifetime? On average, I bet we all know at least one. You may even be one. How many murderers do you know? I bet that statistic probably has a lower number for most of you than the former. Hate, in and of itself, does not lead to murder. Violence doesn't even lead to murder in many cases. The young man who purposefully and intentionally murdered the African American worship group in Charleston, indeed, experienced hate, indeed exhibited violence, but also had something much deeper present that led to such a premeditated massacre. This is where the other ingredients come into play.
Ignorance, prejudice, hatred, violence, and social stigmas all fuel each other. Any combination often lead to the others. Even if one has never raised a hand to another, aggressive and derogatory words are violence too. They're violent because of their intent. To say intention or motivation don't matter, is to say that certain words, though just a combination of letters, have no intrinsic meaning. We all know they do, so stop trying to defend them in argument that they don't.
When one makes a choice to take the lives of others, he or she most certainly has at least some degree of unhealthy mental status. Perhaps, we would be more effective in lifting the stigma of "mental illness" if we more accurately define it, or change the term all together. For most people, this term means psychotic, depressed, disorganized in thinking and perception. These are certainly present in mental illness, but guess what, so are many other symptoms and experiences. Depression is not just low self-esteem, sadness, and isolation. In fact, many recent studies have shown that men experience depression in different ways than women, and sometimes exhibit different symptoms - anger and irritability being among them.
Saying that a perpetrator or horrific violence is unhealthy in mental or emotional health does not exacerbate a stigma. The insistence of our society to label, shame, and isolate those different than our idealized version of self is what keeps these stigmas alive.
Gun control, effective and ethical mental health treatment, appropriate consequences, and increased safety are all necessary, and must work together. None of these have to include the complete removal, overhaul, or inhibition of our rights as citizens. It's simply about us being responsible. We cannot go through life thinking that we are only responsible for ourselves. Though we can truly only control our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we most certainly influence others through our projections. We can equally influence positively and negatively. We must make a choice as to which. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. You may be surprised at the impact. When others choose to ignore kindness or withhold it, you have a choice to keep moving forward. When others choose to use violence as means for withholding or removing kindness, our laws and boundaries must be effective and proactive, as well as responsive.