I met a girl at a party back in college. We hit it off and exchanged numbers. We spoke over the phone for a few days before I decided to up my game. I told her to meet me in the College student parking lot and showed up with round trip tickets to Disney World. Man, it was a fun weekend! I put it all on credit cards that took me a while to pay off. I didn’t have a dollar to my name but screw it, you only live once. I’ve done things like this periodically in my life. Everyone just thought it was part of my personality. To some extent it is. I love doing random, spontaneous things, especially when it makes others happy. But randomly putting yourself in large debt because you want to live in the moment is over-the-top-irresponsible. It’s a feature of bipolar disorder, which I was later diagnosed with.
I began to seek treatment because eventually my behavior and mood deteriorated. I slept around the clock, I couldn’t focus on anything. I had suicidal thoughts. I no longer did anything “fun and crazy”. So, I saw a psychologist and embarked on a journey that, in many ways, I’m still on. It took several years of therapy, prescriptions, progress and setbacks before I got to the point I’m at now. But it was worth it. I now have satisfaction, contentment and mental clarity I never had. My goals are so much clearer to me, and I’m much more likely to pursue them.
The same unfortunately can be applied to perpetrators of mass shootings.
For them, doing harm to others can be just as much of a spontaneous live-in-the-moment thing as flying to Disney was for me. For them, not being able to function can also be the sign of a debilitating mental illness. It can prevent them from pursuing their dark dreams as it prevented me from pursuing mine. When you begin to address that mental illness, they can become encouraged to bring out their true personality. In either case, the results can be disastrous. If they want to be spontaneous and shoot up a school? Well it’s a great day! If they were too depressed to act on it, treatment can put them in a state of mental clarity to do so. This often gets missed in conversations about mental illness; that morally bankrupt people can also suffer from it.
I would have had the same moral compass without my illness. I would have been just as likely to “up my game” with the girl back in college. If I was taking meds like I am now, I may have opted for a romantic dinner surprise instead. But goals are goals. I think I’d be more likely to get a job and save up the money to do it. I have, after all, done some very spontaneous (but financially responsible) things like that for my wife since being treated (and being married). In either case I think by now you get my point. Mental illness isn’t an excuse.
To be fair, bipolar disorder is just one example. There are, of course, forms of mental illness that can absolve people from responsibility for their actions. Paranoid schizophrenics, for instance, can hear voices that encourage them to hurt others. There are also medications that have some fairly serious side effects and can encourage negative behavior or, at the very least, make it harder to be a productive member of society. To deny that is to deny reality. But I’ve seen a disturbing trend in the aftermath of every mass shooting; people are assuming that all mental illness makes otherwise good people do bad things. It isn’t that simple.
The term "mental illness" itself can be misleading. It’s like “cancer”. There are many different forms with many different treatments that have different outcomes on different people. Each combination of forms, treatments and people are unique and have their own statistics. Here are just a few examples from different population sets:
- Mental Health Issues among Ashkenazi Jews
- Mental Health among prison populations
- Mental Health care dynamics in the Latino Community
Therefore, articles with themes such as “the common factor in mass shootings is psychotropic drugs” are deceptive and dangerous. This line of thinking completely ignores the dynamics of treatment and dismisses the entire medicinal field of psychiatry. It stigmatizes people who are responsibly seeking mental health care, and can discourage people from seeking treatment for conditions that can be completely unrelated. Worse still, such declarations completely absolve the perpetrator of personal responsibility.
In most cases, people are still responsible for their own actions. It's vital to distinguish when they are and are not before generalizing; because mental illness isn't a personality flaw. It's an obstacle. Treatment isn’t about changing who you are. It’s about taking responsibility and removing that obstacle in order to allow you to be who you always were. Neither will change your moral compass. An asshole is an asshole.