We are halfway through Mental Health Awareness Month, and while we in the media are making progress in the way we cover those who suffer from mental disorders, we still all too often use language that can backfire in our attempts to de-stigmatize mental illness.
Sometimes, we backfire when, almost by default, we leap to conclusions that a mass shooter is mentally ill.
Consider that, after a white supremacist massacred 51 worshipers at two mosques in New Zealand, even an outstanding political reporter like CNN’s Dana Bash made the error of referring to the mass shooter as a “nut job,” an error she then repeated during a broadcast in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy.
I don’t mean to single out Bash. Many lesser journalists, pundits and political leaders have blamed the mentally ill for mass shootings and other acts of hatred or domestic terrorism. One need only recall reactions from public figures last October, during the pipe-bomb scare and after an anti-Semitic killer murdered 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue. At that time, Donald Trump called the killer “sick”; and Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that the pipe bomber was a “wack job.”
As I have written before, I do not want to serve simply as a politically correct mental-health policeman. And I do recognize that the aforementioned words or phrases are in the vernacular.
But when we use terms like “crazy,” “nut job,” “sick,” “wack job,” and “psycho,” we are intentionally or unintentionally using code words for the mentally ill; in the process, we are maligning a group of people, who commit only 3 % to 4 % of violent crime, as studies show, and who are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence.
I recently discussed some of these issues on the Frankie Boyer show on Biz Talk Radio, WCRN, based in Boston.
In a segment on Monday, May 13, Boyer and I talked about how mass shootings are too often wrongly attributed to the mentally ill.
The overwhelming majority of these rampages are not committed by people with mental illness; the overwhelming majority are committed by angry, white men–men with grievance issues, men who are easily influenced by the nihilistic code of other angry, white men. These hatemongers are often unemployed, do not have a relationship with a significant other, and do not have much of an education.
According to a database compiled by Northeastern University criminologist James Fox, 14.8% of mass shootings have been committed by people with a psychotic disorder. And Columbia University’s Michael Stone, a psychiatrist, has his own database indicating that around 22% of mass shootings have been committed by those with a diagnosable mental illness.
And yet bogus studies still get trotted out and cited by publications and networks that should know better.
At the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, in one of their interstitial or overlapping programming moments, discussed the stigma around mental illness. They did so quite thoughtfully and with great sensitivity. Lemon revealed that he has grappled with depression, and Cuomo talked about how mental health is one of the most critical issues to him. Cuomo then ended his program by providing statistics regarding mental health issues, most of which were helpful and accurate. But he also noted one study that stated erroneously that 60% of mass shootings can be tied to killers with mental illness.
I issued a rebuttal on this subject last year, after the L.A. Times published an op-ed that cited similarly distorted statistics.
As I pointed out at the time, one of the flaws in the methodology of that study is the assumption that people with anger or grievance issues are mentally ill.
Why don’t we simply admit that people who are filled with hatred reflect the dark side of the human condition?
Why are we afraid to use the word, evil, to describe most of these killers?
Why don’t we recognize, as I have written in the past, that most of these people, who commit such heinous crimes, plan them methodically and target those they hate?
Sometimes, those victims are Muslims, Christians or Jews in their houses of worship. Sometimes, those victims are children in schools. Sometimes, those victims are other people who have been marginalized.
And, yes, sometimes the killers are mentally ill.
But most of the time, the killers are just hatemongers, who premeditate their violent actions and show no remorse, not unlike Iago.
I don’t know how many times I have invoked the villain of Othello over the years, but nothing I say can possibly explain his evil better than his credo, “I am not what I am.”
When Iago utters those words, he attempts to subvert the life-affirming ideal of the Old Testament God, who famously proclaims, “I am that I am.”
Like most mass shooters, Iago is a nihilist, who plots to divide and conquer, to destroy the good names of Othello and Cassio, and to kill others in the process.
He is not mentally ill in the least. He is simply evil.
Lest we forget, evil has been with us since the beginning of time, and it will be with us until the end of time too.
We cannot legislate away anger, hatred or evil. Nor for that matter can we legislate away mental illness.
And there is no question that, in dealing with gun violence, we face political and constitutional obstacles that New Zealand and its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who enacted sweeping gun control measures following the Christchurch massacres, do not have.
For instance, we have a more powerful gun lobby, as well as a greater percentage of rural voters, than does New Zealand. And our Supreme Court wrongly decided the Heller case, which recognized an individual right to bear a firearm, as retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens discussed in his recent piece in The Atlantic.
Stevens has called for a constitutional amendment to overturn Heller; and some presidential candidates, like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have proposed new gun control measures.
No matter what, we have to do a much better job of protecting our nation with comprehensive gun control and gun safety policies; and we need to penalize Facebook and other social media outlets that allow sadists to stream their murderous and hateful content online.
Finally, we still need to do a better job when we write or speak of mass shootings, the lion’s share of which are perpetrated by hatemongers, boiling over with rage and resentment, not the mentally ill, who are more likely to be the victims of such hatred and evil.