On Oct. 1, our country was jolted by yet another gun-related tragedy, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, a town just three hours away from Lake Oswego. Once again, a mass shooting sparked an uproar, and once again, the discussion gradually slipped away from the real problem of gun control and instead focused on the mental health of the shooter, our ultimate scapegoat.
The irony is that, while we refuse to talk about mental illness otherwise, we have no problem blaming it for the shootings, even though numerous studies on the relationship between mental illness and shootings prove that there simply is no significant correlation. As Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said in Newsweek: “If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”
However, most people still believe that mental illness is the reason that shootings occur. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 48 percent of Americans blamed the cause of mass shootings on a “failure of the mental health system to identify people who are a danger to others.” Only 40 percent of people that year said it was due to an “easy access to guns,” and that is a decrease from 46 percent in 2011.
So if there is no statistical proof that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be shooters, why do we blame them anyway? Because it is a cop-out, and what is particularly frightening about this realization is that the stigmatization of people with mental health-related issues has become wordlessly accepted.
It says quite a lot about our society when we consider someone who has a mental illness more likely to commit a violent act than someone who owns a gun. And while the media has a large role to play in this stigma, we cannot deny that it is our fault for buying into it.
President Barack Obama summed up this situation best in a powerful statement he made following the Umpqua tragedy: “It is fair to say anyone who does this has a sickness in their minds. Regardless of what they think their motivations may be, we are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illness or want to do harm to other people. We are the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
We simply cannot continue to hold the mentally ill accountable for this serious issue and attempt to dodge the many important conversations we still must have. Perhaps it is time for us to open our eyes and search for a solution, rather than throwing around blame.