On Mental Health and Mass Shootings

By ELLIE EBERLEE, Opinion Editor

Last Tuesday I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d woken up, as I do too often these days, under the suffocating and very real pressure of a panic attack. I stayed there, the back of my head fixed against my pillow, for the better part of three hours. For those who haven’t experienced it, panic is all-consuming. When it sets in, I can’t think straight. I can’t breathe. I want out of my body, and badly. I want my head to turn off, my thoughts to stop — never have I wanted to shoot up a school. 

Yet according to Donald Trump and Second Amendment advocates across the country, as someone who grapples with mental health, I am an enormous threat — greater even, than guns. In order to stop school shootings, Trump contends, America must prevent “savage sickos” like Nikolas Cruz from purchasing weapons at all costs. He sees tragedies like that of Parkland not as a symptom of a society as highly-armed as it is divided, but as a failure on the part of the mental health system, and has promised to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health.”

As someone who grew up in Toronto, I admit to little experience in navigating the American mental healthcare system. It may very well be, as Trump asserts time and inopportune time again, a broken one. But staging that discussion about mental healthcare in tandem with — attempting, really, to make it the core of — the conversation about mass shootings does infinitely more harm than good.

Why? First, as per usual, Trump’s comments contradict the facts. A mere four percent of gun violence can be attributed to mental illness. I have known far too many people in my life who grapple on a daily basis with conditions like severe depression, anxiety, bipolar and panic disorders. When they lose control, they don’t perpetrate mass violence. They curl up in their beds, alone and afraid.

Yet Trump and his cronies persist, shifting the focus of debates in response to tragedies like that of Parkland, Florida away from gun laws — where the facts have proven without doubt that it belongs — and onto the undeserving, not to mention already exhausted, shoulders of the mentally unhealthy.

“It’s hard to say the system failed this young man,” says Amy Barnhorst, vice chairwoman of community psychiatry at UC Davis, “because this young man is not who the system was set up to help … we don’t have medication for anger, resentment or hatred at the world.”

Barnhorst is right: You can’t equate mental illness with the sort of hatred that ends in horrors like Newtown, or Vegas or Parkland. I can’t speak for everyone who struggles, but I’m not angry, or resentful or hateful at the world (more than anything, I want desperately to be a part of it). That isn’t to say that the onslaught of hateful (primarily white and male) shooters are mentally healthy, only to underscore the distinction between that particular violent brand of enmity and diagnosed, treatable conditions which fall under the heading “mental illness.” That also isn’t to claim that those in the former state don’t need help —  far from it. But their condition is a manifestation of a broken society, not a broken mental healthcare system.

Isn’t this merely a question of semantics? Can recent rhetoric about “nut jobs” actually have an impact? For people like me, the consequences of Donald Trump’s misdirected mental illness diatribe are enormous. Trying to navigate acute depression and anxiety at an institution is already an excruciatingly isolating experience. Whether it be because of pride, headache or inability to breathe, walking into a dining hall filled with hundreds of bodies — and not just any bodies, but Middlebury bodies, expected to be as together and controlled as the nautical stripes on their shirts — poses a significant challenge, and previously existing stereotypes make confiding in friends difficult enough. Whenever I contemplate telling someone I’m grappling with things like depression or panic disorder, my greatest worry is inspiring labels like “crazy” or “pathetic” or “suicidal.” If phrases like “dangerously violent” or “likely to commit a school shooting” are inserted into that list, any hope of me reaching out is virtually nonexistent.

What happens then? Retreat. Back to the dorm room for lack of a better option. An unwillingness to seek adequate care or medication. A greater loss of any progress made in the last few years about normalizing dialogue around mental health. And further isolation for those who are already handling enough on their own. For many, this has mortal consequences. Only when we start to perceive those who are mentally ill as dangerous do they become so — yet not in the way the White House would have you believe. 

And so it becomes imperative that we, students of Middlebury College, resist Donald Trump’s latest fear-mongering project. Responses like that of the President’s are not only characteristically uneducated and offensive, but have far-reaching consequences. By pointing fingers at those diagnosed as mentally ill, Trump further alienates a subset of the population which needs human connection more than any other. The mental healthcare system might be broken, but so too is the system around the purchase of firearms. And so just as the debate in the wake of school shootings must remain centered on guns, the dialogue around mental health must remain open and free of inaccurate hate-speech. For those of us who struggle, often, simply to rise up and out of our beds, the very last thing we need are comments like those made by Donald Trump, driving us back into our dorm rooms.