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Don’t blame mental illness for mass murders

A memorial fills the doorway in front of Ned Peppers Bar
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
A memorial fills the doorway in front of Ned Peppers Bar, the scene of Sunday morning's mass shooting, in Dayton, Ohio.

I was diagnosed with depression in my teens. In my 20s, I received a diagnosis for anxiety.

I have tools to treat my mental illness. Therapy, prescription medicine, and skills I learned in therapy are the tools that I use in my daily life. Sometimes, I have really difficult days. Lots of days, I feel fine. Lately, there have been more of the difficult days. There have been more difficult days because everywhere I turn there is crisis. Mass shootings. Climate crisis. Outrageous medical bills that I can’t pay in full quite yet because my HSA was drained after $11,000 in out-of-pocket expenses last year. A mortgage payment in day care, in addition to a mortgage payment for a mortgage. My ability to manage my illness is tested every day.

Please don’t blame mental illness for mass murders that are overwhelmingly committed by white men seeking a vision of white supremacy mixed with guns. Mass shootings are not a mental health problem. They aren’t a video game problem. They aren’t a “we need more god” problem. Lots of other places have mental illness, video games, godlessness, etc., but they don’t have mass shootings.

A host of other gun problems as well

We have a lot of other gun problems, too. We do have people with mental illness who use guns to commit suicide. We have abusers who use guns to kill children, partners, and extended family members. We have people who use guns to resolve parking spot or zipper merge disputes. We have people pushed to the edge committing violent crimes against each other because of generation upon generation of violence committed against them through our systems, structure, and government.

Mental illness. It’s not to blame for these mass shootings. It’s not. But every time someone blames mental illness, it sends more people like me into the dark. Afraid to seek help. Afraid of stigma. Afraid of shame. Afraid of being likened to a monster or worse.

Anita Smithson
Anita Smithson
To those suffering silently: You are worthy and deserving of being well. You are. I know in my heart that you are, because I know that I am. I’m the face of my mental illness. And I know I am so much greater than my mental illness wants me to think.BaUn

Sure, we have a mental health problem. If you want to fix that, you’ll support universal health care coverage, and you’ll help destigmatize mental illness. But our mental health problem is completely separate from our gun violence epidemic.

If you want to end mass shootings, you must support getting weapons capable of committing mass murder out of our homes and out of our communities. And we must eradicate the white supremacy ideology that drives so many of the people committing these acts of terror. This starts here, with all of us.

Universal background checks, red flag laws

If you want to end the ordinary, everyday gun violence that takes people from our communities, you should support universal background check legislation and red flag laws. These common-sense solutions are supported by an overwhelming number of Americans, and advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action, Protect Minnesota, the Brady campaign, and the Giffords organization. They may not stop every shooting – but they are a start. We do not have to live this way.

Anita Smithson is a mother, and organizer in Bloomington – working hard to help create a more just and safe world for her children and all children.


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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 08/09/2019 - 10:46 pm.

    It isn’t terribly comforting to think that the thought of killing dozens of people is normal mental health. That the ability to distinguish between right and wrong has nothing to do with mental health is equally scary.

    • Submitted by Mark Jeppson on 08/10/2019 - 08:40 am.

      WHOA – How did you arrive at these comments from Ms Smithson’s article?

      I took the message to imply that casting the blame of gun violence/mass shootings onto those who suffer mental illness is not a solution for this epidemic.

      I attended Congressman Tom Emmer’s recent town hall gathering in Scandia. The question came up relative to his position on gun control (and his support from the NRA). He IMMEDIATELY deflected this to focusing on “keeping guns from those with mental health issues”, that being the number one solution. (Recall besides our 6th district representative Mr. Emmer is the chairman of the NRCC – so his position reflections that of the republican party)

      To me, Ms Smithson, was advocating that there are more productive areas to focus on when addressing the gun violence/mass shootings other than mental illness.

      Well written Ms Smithson!!

      • Submitted by Steve Wollard on 08/10/2019 - 04:13 pm.

        How did he arrive at those comments? Well, that’s easy enough to answer.
        From the article:

        “Please don’t blame mental illness for mass murders that are overwhelmingly committed by white men seeking a vision of white supremacy mixed with guns.”

        This makes it rather clear it is her assertion that individuals who dream of an all-white world – and are willing to kill to achieve it – are not mentally ill.

        Gun control comes in many, many different colors. But they all come from the same mentality: a lack of proper education when it comes to firearm possession.

      • Submitted by Timothy Swedberg on 08/10/2019 - 11:24 pm.

        I’m happy your depression/anxiety is under control I know it’s a struggle. But depression/anxiety is a small part of a large spectrum under the heading of mental illness many of which are difficult to control. The act of taking a gun or bomb, knife, car etc. and using it to end lives of random or even targeted people is a form of mental illness. It’s certainly a sign of moral turpitude. There seems to also be a connection with Psychotropic drugs associated with many of these shootings/ suicides and other acts of violence. The good that these drugs do is well documented but like many drugs the side effects though recognized are less documented. Even less publicly attributed to the perpetrators of these shootings. It is also well documented that most of these perpetrators come from broken homes the lack of moral training the guidance of a father and mother in the home is definitely a factor. Or perhaps you can point out the percentage of shooters that come from intact stable families.
        After we hear of these horrific acts we automatically look for solutions to stop the next one. Unfortunately we tend to look to the same answers, answers that have been tried in many countries states and communities. Communities with the most restrictive gun laws have the most gun deaths. Universal Background checks given the obnoxious behavior of our political leaders seems far too trusting for my comfort ie. Doxing the contributors to your political opponents. This is exactly why the words “Shall not be infringed “ are there and restricting these rights must be taken seriously. There is a Avenue by which to do it, a constitutional amendment. Red flag laws without provisions for due process is yet another slippery slope. Given the way our 1st amendment rights are being stymied by the pc culture and social media. I can certainly imagine how the major media could distort the need to confiscate the guns of Joe Q Public depending on which side of the political isle he falls. Remember though El Paso had White supremacist leanings The Dayton shooter was very left leaning even pro gun control. Yet the overwhelming majority of coverage has been El Paso Looking for immediate solutions for complicated problems is not politically expedient and probably the biggest contributing factor as to why these problems seem to be escalating unchecked. Publicly we are just as impatient unwilling to except the need four incremental long term solutions. Holding our children and a young men accountable for their behavior and reporting anti social behavior is also incredibly important. Every one of the killers have either un or under prosecuted criminal offenses, exhibited anti social behavior or bizarre behaviors that we are excepting socially. I can only hope that one of the umpteen thousands of government agencies are committed to studying these killers and understanding their commonalities. What is driving them? What’s their motivation. Is there any solutions? My guess is that it simply will not be solved by yet another piece of legislation.

        • Submitted by jody rooney on 08/15/2019 - 06:41 am.

          You make good points but the bottom line is we just want them to stop shooting people I don’t really care what their motivations is.

      • Submitted by Misty Martin on 08/16/2019 - 11:13 am.

        Yes, well written, indeed. We all must strive to do our part to prevent these tragedies from happening – all of the above advocacy groups sound like a good place to start.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 08/10/2019 - 07:19 pm.

      There is a difference between emotionally disturbed and having a mental illness that has been diagnosed such as bipolar, schizophrenia. Most people with mental illnesses are not violent and are in fact the victims of violence. Many of the school shooters and mass shooters appear to be in the emotionally disturbed category.

  2. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 08/10/2019 - 07:26 am.

    Most of the mass killers already passed a background check. So what good will universal background checks do?

    We already have laws on the books for restraints on people who are in danger to themselves or others. Why a red flag law with no legal due process that even the ACLU has issues with?

    These laws give a false sense of security.

    • Submitted by Mark Voorhees on 08/10/2019 - 03:30 pm.

      Mr. Briebart, MN does NOT have a Red Flag law. This bill, if allowed to pass, would enable families or police to obtain a court order to remove the weapon if they believe the gun owner may do harm to themself or others. The owner can then appeal to the judge to have their weapon returned.

      Nor does MN have a law restricting sales at gun shows which is included in the increased background check bill.

      These bills are important for our personal and public safety and should be made into laws. We must do our due diligence to stop shootings by firearm.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 08/10/2019 - 07:22 pm.

      Actually some of them would not have passed or at least would have slowed the passage. Also many of them were not mentally ill. The red flag law would indeed slow things down for those making threats especially if their families or friends reported it. The problem with these high powered guns is that even if you are armed, you stand little chance to survive their damage. We passed tighter security after 9/11 so why not tighten the laws and enforce existing ones given the large number of deaths. The NRA has become a lunatic organization.

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 08/10/2019 - 08:23 am.

    Here we have the gun debate wrapped up in one article. The right says its about mental health and the left says its about white supremacy. No one is actually discussing the issue, which is far more broad. Hence, little will happen, and it will always be the other side’s fault.

  4. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 08/10/2019 - 08:38 am.

    There is more than one symptom and more than one kind of mental illness.
    Thanks for playing doctor.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 08/10/2019 - 09:01 am.

    The term “mental Illness” means different things to different persons. Some might say that a strong supporter of Trump is mentally ill. Some might say that all criminals are mentally ill.

    Mild mental illness is ubiquitous: depression, personality disorders.

    Yes we should have background checks that keep the obviously dangerous or seriously unstable persons from owning guns. But let’s take more serious steps by having national gun licensing and ban assault weapons.

  6. Submitted by gloria flor on 08/10/2019 - 10:14 am.

    It is very unlikely that any judge, airline ticket agent or federal employee disagreed when metal detectors were installed at their respective places of work. Why are our children and teachers not being given same value? No one asked the “reason” be sorted out for the necessity of greater protection before acting upon the reality of the greater threat to these other workplaces–the fact that there have been more mass shootings than calendar days in 2019 is reason enough. The “why” needs to be sorted out without further opportunity for harm. Cost should not matter–if we can fund a new football stadium we can fund safety issues for our children. Then–let the ball-tossing and fingerpointing our legislators have become so adept it is now second nature to them carry on as usual. At least the kids will be safe while they continue their political buffoonery. It is truly sad to see grown adults bicker while nothing practical emerges to address childrens’ safety not tomorrow but TODAY.

  7. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 08/10/2019 - 10:17 am.

    Right on, Anita! Mental illness as a major factor in mass shootings is a red herring intended to divert attention from the real causes: the availability of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and extreme racist and religious ideologies.

  8. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/10/2019 - 11:05 am.

    Why do people insist on casting gun-related violence as the result of a single factor. Of course some mental health issues factor into the equation, as does the ready availability of weapons capable of killing dozens in a matter of seconds. Most of those killed by gunfire in this country die by their own hands, approximately 24,000 of the almost 40,000 killed with guns in 2017. Those murdered most often lose their lives to friends and family members who keep guns in the house. Children lose their lives to one another while playing with loaded guns left out by careless (or simply uncaring) adults.

    Like the many forms of cancer, these are discrete problems that will require a variety of remedies. Let’s admit that and get to work.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/10/2019 - 12:10 pm.

    I support everything Ms. Smithson says, but we need to stop pretending that the least we can do is the most we can do. We need to stop referring to background checks and red flags as “common sense” measures as if nothing else we can do is commons sense. Sales bans on assault rifles and military handguns are common sense measures no less so. We have to stop hemming ourselves into the least effective responses to whatever crises we try to resolve. We’re actually putting common sense beyond reach and deciding we can live with massacres every time we let the gun lobby dictate the boundaries of our responses.

    • Submitted by Andy Briebart on 08/10/2019 - 03:38 pm.

      There is an estimated three million black scary guns in circulation in the US. Each owner has at least three 30 round magazines. 30 is the standard capacity.

      Banning them? So what do you do with existing ones? Compensated confiscation? What happens when people won’t “sell” them back? Forcefully go into their homes? How many cops will carry out those orders? And the bad people will still have black scary guns.

      Keep talking about gun control. AR’s, AK’s, .223 ammo is flying off the shelves right now. Many people are buying an extra one just because you don’t want them to have one. There is now a glut of ammo on the shelf at great prices. Time to stock up.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 08/12/2019 - 06:53 pm.

        Wow…so the very discussion of “gun control” triggers gun huggers into a frenzy of stockpiling more guns and ammo? You’re not exactly painting a picture of a sane, measured and reasonable demographic there, dude.
        I’ve owned and shot for more than forty years, and I’ve never once felt compelled to run out and buy because of a discussion on how to stop people from shooting others en masse.
        By the way, you can dispense with the “black scary gun” meme that the NRA handed down a while back. It means nothing.

  10. Submitted by Krista Boston on 08/10/2019 - 08:56 pm.

    No one including the most mainstream media is addressing the core problems. These young men (mostly) tend to be fatherless and they tend to be on medications. It’s easy to avoid considering the role of pharmaceuticals in this because of the size of the lobby. Both sides take their money. Instead we’ll ignore the root cause and spew this red flag nonsense as of it will do something and end up taking away rights of the millions of law abiding gun owners and ensure that guns are in the hands of the mostly rich as we always do in this country – yes democrats you do it all the time…and then we’ll pretend inanimate objects or mental illness are to blame. Typical. Sorry I don’t buy it and I am not interested anymore in politicians with their ridiculous assertions and blame. They add no value here.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/12/2019 - 12:51 pm.

      Women are also on meds, have mental illnesses, and are fatherless. And yet they aren’t shooting the place up like men are.

      This is a case of toxic male entitlement, nothing else.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Barrett on 08/12/2019 - 08:48 am.

    Hard to believe “sane” people blaming just guns and availability and not mental health. They don’t put the guns in jail regardless of the definitions. Yes, shooters choose scary looking guns rather than bird and deer guns but wouldn’t that indicate a deranged attempt to control whole mentality of the incident?

  12. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 08/13/2019 - 07:55 pm.

    Look, here’s the thing – you could argue that just about every bad thing that people do to each other in this world is caused by ‘mental illness’.

    After all, happy, well-adjusted people normally don’t do hurtful things to others very often and that of course definitely includes shooting others with a gun!

    The problem is this – despite all the fancy psychiatry degrees given out, and all the 30 letter words diagnosing various mental behaviours, I would argue our society actually knows very little about CURING mental illness or even controlling it.

    Maybe 50 or 100 years they will, but they don’t now – we’re in the stone ages in terms of mental health treatment IMO.

    They create all that fancy 30 letter terminology to hide the fact that they are so ineffective at actually treating it!

    How many of you know people who have been in therapy and perhaps taking meds for 10, 20, or 30 years, and who are pretty much exactly the same as when they started (or maybe worse?) ?

    On the other hand, a gun is something that we could have some effective control over, if like in other countries around the world, we had a government that wasn’t in the grips of a special interest group that ‘owns’ politicians.

    It’s far easier to control a physical object than a human mind and irrational emotions.

    These mass killings are the result of a partnership between a twisted mind and a weapon of mass destruction – both are required to have a mass shooting, but it’s easier to control a physical object than a twisted mind.

    I am in favor of the red flag laws to try catch people who are clearly showing they are over the edge, but stronger gun control is needed too.

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