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Mental health awareness

| Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Last week, in the aftermath of the horrific attack in a Texan church, President Trump steered discussion from gun control by saying, “Mental health is your problem here.” After the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Paul Ryan argued, “The common theme with these types of shootings is mental illness.” In 2012, following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre advocated for a national database of “lunatics.”

The true devastation of these tragedies can be lost in repetition. We should not lose sight of the humanity of every life lost. We can likely all agree that the disturbing recurrence of such tragedies devastates our nation; that too many have died; that something must be done. Mental illness affects one in five American adults, while serious mental illness (including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression) affects one in 25 Americans. Notre Dame’s University Counseling Center reports that 26 percent of the last three graduating classes sought its counseling resources. Of course, not all who have visited the UCC experience mental illness, but some do. Yet despite the significant population whom mental illness affects, only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people with a serious mental illness. When politicians (usually Republican, though not always) attribute mass shootings to mental illness, they expose a deep misunderstanding of what mental illness is while unfairly and inaccurately demonizing those who struggle with it.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Mental illness can include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia and more. Some people may choose to treat their mental illness through medication or counseling, while others may persevere without a diagnosis or treatment. Furthermore, mental illness is not something that can be controlled through will power, a sign of mental weakness or a predisposing factor to violence.

There can be no dispute: People with serious mental illness have perpetrated mass shootings. However, mass shootings account for only a small percentage of overall gun violence. The mainstream media’s anecdotal coverage of these mass atrocities distorts the reality of gun-related deaths. More than 60 percent of deaths inflicted by guns are suicides. Though it is difficult to find an exact number, medical professionals widely recognize mental illness as a major risk factor for suicide. Moreover, less than 5 percent of all gun-related killings (excluding suicide) from 2001 to 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with a mental illness. On the contrary, people with serious mental illness are at least ten times more likely to be victims of gun violence.

These preceding statistics demonstrate that mental illness is not necessarily predictive of violence. Even if we “cured” all people with mental illness, violent crime would not cease. Contrary to this understanding, mental illness is often portrayed by the media and in society as the determinative factor of violent crime. In daily life, we misunderstand mental illness not only by describing mass shooters as “lunatics” and “crazy,” but also, perhaps more egregiously, by demanding that a depressed friend simply “snap out of it,” that an anorexic friend “eat more,” that a friend with ADHD “just focus already.”

We cannot continue to stigmatize mental illness in this way, especially when many on our own campus struggle in silence. By inaccurately repeating politicized rhetoric that mental illness causes violent tendencies, we condition those who experience mental illness to adopt a negative self-stigma, decreasing chances that they will seek out help.

Mental illness does not make you violent. Mental illness does not make you weak. Mental illness does not make you a bad person. Rather, mental illness is common and often treatable with support, counseling and, sometimes, medication. We must extend the conversation about mental illness beyond mass atrocities and suicides. Listen to the stories of those living with mental illness, and expand your perception of mental illness beyond a single narrative. Recognize that there are high-functioning, intelligent, productive people with mental illness all around us. We cannot continue to shame them.

Because ultimately, mental illness is not black and white: There is no “us” and “them.” To those coping with mental illness, I stand among you.

Isabel Rooper can be contacted at irooper@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • HaroldAMaio

    The proper response on a college campus to someone voicing a stigma, faculty
    administration or student is to counsel them. Every student has an absolute right
    to an education free of that prejudice directed at them or to them, and
    every educator has an absolute responsibility to see that it is provided.