Without fail, every time my phone chimes with a breaking news alert, I automatically stop and say to myself, “Please do not let there be another mass shooting” followed by “or murder-suicide.” The majority of the time, the alert is something political, global or celebrity gossip. But today, as I walked out of, of all things, a certification seminar on Mental Health First Aid for youths, I got the dreaded breaking news alert that a shooting took place on the UCLA campus.
I tried to hope for the best and prayed there were no injuries or fatalities, but soon enough a follow-up alert confirmed what I really didn’t want to hear. This was a murder-suicide. Not that any type of gun-related fatality was okay but this, but incidents like this present a major setback for mental health because it further feeds the stigma of mental illness.
It was the day after I gave birth to my youngest child, when as I lay in a hospital bed recuperating and snuggling with my sweet, new baby, that a breaking news alert flashed across the TV screen indicating that a shooting had taken place in an elementary school in Sandy Hook. Glued to the screen, I watched as within minutes and not knowing the facts, talking heads argued gun control vs. mental illness hours as families were mourning the loss of the most innocent of souls. In the days following I vividly remember how every news outlet scrolled “mental illness,” “medication,” “better background checks” and more. That’s not to say that the callous murderer didn’t have one or multiple diagnosis. But, it’s almost as if people are confusing the two.
Mental illness does not mean murder or murder-suicide or even suicide. A handful of individuals who acts criminally are not indicative of the entire population who have dealt a mental health episode. With 1 in 4 adults experiencing some form of mental illness over the span of their lifetime, whether it be anxiety, depression, PTSD, post-partum depression, and so on, we are not a dangerous population. As someone who has experienced anxiety and depression, harming another is not something I or anyone I interact with would even consider. The majority of mental health advocates I’ve encountered have some experience with periodic or chronic mental illness but harming others would never cross their minds. If anything, we’re the opposite; we want love and compassion and to keep others happy.
I’m tired of hearing people steer clear of someone who has openly acknowledge they have a mental illness out of their own fear of being associated with someone who “has the potential to harm others” or harm them. I’m tired of reading comments on twitter such as “those with mental illness will always break the law.” Anyone can commit murder. Anyone can fire a gun. If a person is intent on committing a crime, they will do it regardless of mental illness or wellness.
As a mental health advocate, I assure you our community of advocates will continue working to educate our friends, peers, politicians, and lawmakers on what mental illness really looks like. We will continue educating the media on how their portrayal of criminals with or without mental illness affects how we are seen. And we will continue using our voices to help those with severe mental illness who are at risk. But we will never accept being seen as criminals, because we are not.