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Mass Shootings Are Not a “Mental Illness Problem”

A rebuttal to Donald Trump's comments following the recent tragedies

While our nation reels from mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, as well as Gilroy, Calif., I have been heartened that most commentators, pundits and presidential candidates have refrained from leaping to the ignorant view, spouted most notably by Donald Trump, that the perpetrators were “very, very seriously mentally ill.”

Thankfully, more and more members of the media and political class are starting to recognize that the vast majority of these mass shooters do not suffer even remotely from mental illness.

When asked about the contention that these mass shootings are a “mental illness problem,” Cheryl Dorsey, a retired LAPD sergeant, told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield that such a point of view was “intellectually dishonest.”

As Dorsey said, you cannot be mentally ill and drive hundreds of miles, don a bulletproof vest and arm yourself with a semiautomatic weapon and high-capacity magazines, and then carry out a mass murder.

What she was pointing out was that such preparation, such plotting, is extremely unlikely to be done by someone who is in the midst of psychosis.

Dorsey also said quite correctly that it is “insulting” to blame the mentally ill for these crimes.

I could not agree more.

And yet, while many commentators were willing to criticize Trump for spewing and condoning hatred and racism, very few pundits actually spoke up on behalf of the mentally ill.

That changed when Dr. Stephen Seager, a former staff psychiatrist at Napa Hospital in California, appeared on Don Lemon’s CNN show late on Sunday night.

Dr. Seager robustly defended those of us who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.  He said without any hesitation that the recent mass shootings have “nothing to do with mental illness,” and he showed his political savvy when he suggested that the reason politicians, like Donald Trump, blame the mentally ill is because most of us do not vote.

While many of us actually do vote, I agree with Dr. Seager’s larger point, which is that the mentally ill do not have a strong voice in Washington.  We are not a constituency with many powerful advocates.

Thus, there are still people, including those who should know better, who falsely brand us as the perpetrators of violent crime when in fact most mass shooters are not mentally ill at all.

As I have written before, when public figures, without even learning the facts, attribute these rampages to the mentally ill, they malign people like me, or Saoirse Kennedy Hill, who wrote about her battles with depression and who recently died of a drug overdose.

Readers know that, like Kennedy Hill, I too come from a family with a history of mental illness and suicide; I was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I still receive treatment for depression with psychotic features.  (Note to Marianne Williamson: I have taken and continue to benefit from anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication, which, while not a panacea by itself, might have helped my grandfather, who took his life in 1942.)

For all of my flaws, I have never tried to hurt anyone, nor have I ever been violent; and that is true of most people with mental illness.

Indeed, most of the mentally ill blend into society and serve as good citizens.

If anything, we are more likely to be the victims, than the perpetrators, of violence, as studies show.

Mass murderers, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on committing acts of violence.

While we may find out that the Dayton gunman, or the others, had seen a therapist, that would still not necessarily mean that any one of them had a diagnosable mental illness, a point with which Dr. Seager would no doubt concur.

In such a scenario, if the Dayton gunman was indeed compelled to see a therapist by his former school, it was probably because school administrators did not know what else to do.

But there are some things we do know about mass shooters.

What defines most of these killers is that they are young white men, who are consumed by hatred, rage and bigotry, and who are fully cognizant of the evil that they plan to commit.

They often do not have a job or much of an education.  And in many cases, they have no significant other in their lives.

As I have written before, these killers tend to live by a nihilistic code, and they fill the void in their lives with grievances. 

So whom do they blame for their frustrations, for their failings?

Sometimes, they blame their former employers.  Sometimes, they target their ex-girlfriends or wives.  Sometimes, they seek vengeance against the schools they attended.

Increasingly, though, these mass shooters have been targeting the other, which is to say that they have gone after marginalized communities, whom the killers wish to scapegoat for their own problems.

And it is clear to any sentient person that many of these killers believe that Donald Trump has given them cover to commit depraved acts.

After all, Trump has encouraged violence for years.  

We all remember when he said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and still get elected president.

Trump’s rhetoric remains “irresponsible” and “reckless,” as Senator Kamala Harris said on Sunday.

And his words can lead to tragic consequences. 

When Trump speaks so casually, even flippantly, about violence, and when he uses the bully pulpit to castigate others, it sends a terrible message to young people with grievance issues.

We have all had problems in our lives, but the solution is to face our mistakes and address them; at minimum, we need to admit our failings to ourselves.

If we reflect more deeply on mistakes we have made, on people we have hurt, we might summon the decency to apologize, to seek help, to pursue a new job, a new career, a new life.

We might also forgive those who have hurt us, who have spread lies and hatred, and even those who have been violent, if they are sincere in their remorse.

Unfortunately, our nation has lost many of the Judeo-Christian values, such as decency, self-reflection, forgiveness and humility, to which we should aspire.

Among other failings, we, as a nation, have become wedded to the emptiness of celebrity culture; as I have noted many times, we fail to recognize the difference between fame and infamy, a difference that used to be much clearer.

Let me be very clear to young people reading this article — there is nothing glorious about harming, or God forbid, killing another person.

You will not gain fame or respect if you kill someone, let alone if you wipe out a group of people.  Instead, you will eternally disgrace yourself and your family; and, if you believe in such things, as I do, you will put your soul in jeopardy, perhaps forever.

Young people should recognize Donald Trump for what he is–a charlatan, who inherited a family business and ran it incompetently to the point of bankrupting several of his ventures; a pathological liar, who subverts our Judeo-Christian ideals, including the need to be honest and speak the truth; and a hatemonger, who, as I wrote earlier, spews and condones racist tropes, and who, in many cases, singles out the most marginalized communities.

That is why he reserves much of his worst venom for minorities, blacks and Latinos in particular, as well as immigrants and Muslims.

But he has also targeted people with disabilities, including those of us who battle mental illness.

Who can forget the hideousness of candidate Trump, when he mocked New York Times’ reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has a congenital disorder that affects the use of his hand.

Then there was Trump’s asinine tweet that President Obama was a “psycho” during the Ebola crisis.

And Trump never misses the opportunity to blame the mentally ill for mass shootings, as he did Sunday, following the two most recent tragedies.

For those who want to know the facts about the disconnect between mental illness and violence, here is some pertinent information:

As I have pointed out for years, the mentally ill, with no substance abuse problems, commit only 3 % to 4% of violent crime.

While the percentage is higher when it pertains to mass and serial shootings, only about 22 % of these rampages are committed by someone with a diagnosable mental illness, according to Dr. Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia University.

James Fox of Northeastern University, a criminologist, has indicated that about 15% of mass shooters have a psychotic disorder.

And James Gagliano, a retired FBI official, who spoke on CNN on Sunday morning, said that FBI data has revealed that roughly 25% of mass shooters are mentally ill.

That means that at least 3 out of 4 mass shooters, the lion’s share of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, do not have or have not had a mental illness.

Indeed, as I wrote before, what unites these killers is that most of them are angry, young, white men, who nurse grievances. 

Needless to say, they would be far less likely to commit mass murder if we had a comprehensive, federal gun-control policy.

I applaud politicians like Senator Cory Booker, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as others, who called out Donald Trump for his “moral failure” as a leader.

Booker, who has proposed a federal gun-licensing program, spoke with eloquence on Jake Tapper’s show about how these are times when Trump needs unequivocally to condemn hatred, bigotry, violence, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. 

Of course, we all know that our commander-in-chief would rather divide and conquer the world, appeal to the worst instincts of aggrieved Americans, scapegoat the other, and stoke violence in our country.

Like the angry young men, bent on infamy, Trump should be thinking about the future of his soul.

I know that he will laugh if he reads this, or if someone reads it to him.

But life has little value if we do not examine ourselves and if we do not try to have a moral compass.

For too long now, the perverse pursuit of infamy has warped the souls of too many Americans.

At this point in our history, the least we can do is try to send a positive message to our young people about the importance of living a life, however imperfect, in which we value decency, nonviolence, fairness and the truth.

Maybe, we can even save some of these young people from following a nihilistic code and destroying their lives, as well as the lives of others.    

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