American society deals with the issue of mass shootings by further scapegoating the mentally ill. Does the high level of stigma contribute to the escalation of these violent incidents?
As of late February, the tally of mass shootings in America totals 49.
The rhetoric of public officials heard spinning off the radio dial is divided into two camps; Experts who are familiar with the criminology of such acts and law enforcement who differentiate the motives so we all know how to respond and which scapegoat to blame and which side of the political spectrum to support.
Ultimately, a lot of attention is paid to the mental health of the perpetrator so that judgments can be passed, justice can be attained and grief and healing can ensue.
When I heard the story about the man from Kalamazoo who terrorized the city while driving for Uber killing seven and injuring one, I was extremely distressed. It’s true I, perhaps more than the average citizen, could imagine a host of scenarios that could have led to such random violence.
I work in the far reaches of a city hospital in the historical section of a sizable complex–back at the entrance where the trash compacter sits, next to the morgue, where the old steam heaters spew. Here, I have started a particular group that explores the innards of “psychosis.”
I seek to compartmentalize experiences that participants have suffered. We look at experiences we have in common and teach each other about the diversity of experiences and explanations for those experiences that cause trauma and distress.
I have become adept at obtaining disclosures about experiences that have been secreted for years and years, even during organized treatment.
Even though none of my clients in the group, for all their traumatic experiences, have ever acted out via mass shootings, I know that they are high up on the list of scapegoats who will be blamed for this incident.
In my mind, they, with their stories of homelessness, abuse and poverty will be the ones that face even more oppression and depravity as a result. Indeed, witnessing the true stories of human torture that are shared in the room in the back ward might help someone understand why someone might be compelled to act in this manner.
However, on the whole, as a social group, people who’ve experienced “psychosis” usually don’t act violent. Individuals who experience “psychosis” are less likely to act violent than the general public and are far more likely to be the recipient of abuse.
But it is acts like the mass murder in Kalamazoo that cause the well documented danger stigma that make those with “psychosis” so likely to have danger projected on to them. Imagine losing everything and enduring what seems like never-ending depravity and torture and having it blamed on your biology and then being treated like you are dangerous: that can lead someone to act out violently.
Back when I was six years into my career and working in what seemed like very dangerous and violent street contexts, this happened to me.
One day I had someone say that I advocated too much for client rights and five days later, I was taken from a ditch that I collapsed in and, like a snitch, admitted to a back ward in a state hospital.
I had been beaten by cops during an effort to exit the country and driven 80 miles from my car. I lost everything and nobody believed my story. Though I am far from being violent, ever, I could understand how someone who wasn’t accustomed to being bullied the way I always have been, could respond through violence to the ridicule and abuse by a cop and the years of ridicule and abuse that would follow.
The Dilemmas People Face
I have written a memoir that goes through many of the specifics of what happened to me during that five day period and the years that followed. I wrote the book to help explain to the public some of the dilemmas that people with “psychosis” face. It has received almost all five star reviews and already has made at least one short-list for an award. I have had three radio interviews, but still few book sales. So often, the public goes to catastrophes in order to learn its lessons, not to more average stories of resilience.
I think the more we indulge in legal entitlement, rage and revenge in our grieving process as a people, the more we will exacerbate the conflict. We all need to be able to feel our feelings in order to heal.
Furthermore, I believe that the more we use threats of eternal institutionalization and ignorance to gain compliance, the more we encourage people to isolate and keep mental health issues out of the mainstream, the more we will encourage and accelerate of the social phenomenon of mass murder.
In the press, a mass murder does more to accelerate stigma than a story of resilience decreases it.