In the aftermath of the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas on 3 August and in Dayton, Ohio on the 4th, both President Trump and Texas Governor Abbott have named mental ill-health as one of the main culprits for these horrific actions.
This has sparked a strong reaction from mental health advocates and organizations. Indeed, many have expressed concern that such statements will contribute to the dehumanization of an already marginalized segment of society. In its recent publication entitled Mass Violence in America: Causes, Impacts and Solutions, the National Council for Behavioral Health highlights the following:
Incidents of mass violence—especially those that appear to be senseless, random acts directed at strangers in public places—are so terrifying and traumatic that the community demands an explanation and the incidents often provoke a defensive response from mental health advocates. After such events, political leaders often invoke mental illness as the reason for mass violence, a narrative that resonates with the widespread public belief that mentally ill individuals in general pose a danger to others. Since it is difficult to imagine that a mentally healthy person would deliberately kill multiple strangers, it is commonly assumed that all perpetrators of mass violence must be mentally ill. And when mental illness becomes the accepted putative reason for mass violence, the conclusion follows that restricting the liberty of people with mental illnesses—even removing them from the community—or preventing them from owning guns are solutions. This simplistic conclusion ignores the facts that mass violence is caused by several different social and psychological factors that interact with each other in complex ways, that many if not most perpetrators do not have a diagnosable mental illness and that the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent toward others. (p. 14)
As a mental health clinician, I spend the majority of my days working with individuals who are affected by severe behavioral health impairments. This includes people who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. During the past week, a number of my clients have expressed sadness and fear at the widespread misconception that the mentally ill are largely responsible for mass violence. After all, they are all too familiar with the stigma that generally comes with having a mental health impairment.
One of my clients, who also happens to be a Buddhist, told me: “If only people knew, my disability actually makes me more human.” As a fellow human being and Buddhist practitioner, her insightful words resonated deep within me. In the current US climate, many of us are fixated on our differences and separateness. With strong fractions in the political, religious and social spheres, we often forget that although each and every one of us is unique, we all have our humanity in common.
The first Noble Truth is that suffering is universal, and people who are affected by mental health impairments are no exception to this. Many of my clients have experienced one or more of the following: homelessness, hospitalization, assault, abuse, poverty, addiction, loss of a loved one, discrimination, and so on. Despite these obstacles, they are here to face another day in this chaotic world and to lend a helping hand to their fellow beings. If they are not already bodhisattvas, are they not maybe bodhisattvas in the making?