Mental health stigmas silence conversations

The Washington Post reported that as of Oct. 1, there have been 294 mass shootings and 274 days in 2015. Earlier this week, President Barack Obama responded to the latest mass-shooting tragedy in the United States. In his response to the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, Obama used a chilling tone.    “Somehow,” he said, “This has become routine.”

And it is true. Each time a person becomes compelled to commit an act like this, we as a nation react in a routine way, from the social media hashtags and news pundit speculations to mayors and college presidents writing letters of consolation to their communities.

There are two obvious factors in cases of mass shootings: mental health issues and easy access to firearms. As far as the contentious firearm debate goes, we have yet to make any significant adjustment to our national behavior despite clear statistics indicating the correlation between firearm access and increased murder, suicide and accidental death by said weapons. The connection is obvious, demonstrable and incredibly upsetting.

But that is not what we are talking about right now. One might argue that it should not be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to obtain a gun. But in making this argument, we are assuming that the desire to inflict harm on others in certain individuals is beyond our control. We are making an assumption that we accept and consequently do nothing to change. Who are these individuals? Why do they just happen to want to inflict harm?

Chris Harper-Mercer, the Umpqua shooter, was not just an aberrant sociopath bent on killing people for the sake of killing people. From his perspective, and from the alleged perspectives of the majority of mass-shooters who make similar claims, he was driven to do this. Of course, the combination of isolation, alienation, frustration and anger that this individual experienced was exacerbated by his mental health issues.

We agree on this point enough for Obama to simply label Harper-Mercer as having a “sickness of the mind” without doing any further investigating.

But the upsetting and uncomfortable part of this equation that none of us want to acknowledge in the wake of a tragedy is the fact that Harper-Mercer was dealing with mental pain. Whenever a mass shooting occurs, the last thing that we as a nation want to talk about is preventative measures to take against potentially violence-inducing mental health crises. In plain English, people like Harper-Mercer need our compassion and encouragement to seek treatment before their sickness and circumstances override their capacity for rationality and empathy.

This requires a cultural shift. Instead of trending the phrase “Forget Oregon’s Gunman” in attempt to focus on the other victims, we need to end our culture of stigma surrounding mental health. We are dealing with a paradox. On one hand, we are willing to write off people like Harper-Mercer as insane and inevitably murderous without looking into intervention possibilities. On the other hand, we are steeped in a politically-correct culture of mandated silence.

The truth is that most, if not all, future mass shootings have the potential to be stopped long before the ideation takes root in the perpetrator’s mind. By choosing to forget Harper-Mercer instead of reaching out to those who might one day feel the way he did, we are not attempting any change of strategy or reaction aimed at solving this problem.

When you extinguish a fire, you must aim at the base of the flames. If you aim at the chaotic top of the flame in a panic, you fail to address the source of the problem.