I haven’t articulated any thoughts or opinions about what happened in Orlando this past weekend because really truly, the only word that I can think to describe it is horrific. What I am going to comment on though is number of posts and memes I’ve seen over the past few days drawing lines between mental illness and gun violence.
One in particular suggested that “mental illness + gun = mass shooting.”
There’s no question the Orlando shooter was a hate-filled maniac, but I’m not entirely comfortable painting all mental illnesses — I’m going to call them mental health disorders — with one broad brush.
Putting my personal experiences aside, there is no question that gun violence is out of control in our country, but I don’t think that any one of us has the solution right now (I would even be willing to bet that there are plenty of responsible gun owners with mental health issues who manage not to commit violent acts).
As someone who has dealt with anxiety and depression since college, I can tell you that not every mental health disorder drives you to murder 50 innocent people. More than 40 million adults in the U.S. alone have a mental health disorder — that is 18% of the population. Think of 10 people you know — two of them have, to varying degrees, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, etc.
Mental health is disorders affect your mood, thinking and behavior can be acute or chronic, like most disorders. It’s no different than having diabetes, asthma or a physical condition that you have to work to manage in order to live your life like everyone else. Some mental health disorders can be extremely dangerous, especially if left untreated. Most of them though, are super mundane and honestly, mostly just annoying and frustrating.
For me, when I’m feeling especially anxious about something, I’m generally aware of it, but I don’t know how to turn the anxiety off. It’s the same feeling you might recognize from when you want to lose weight but haven’t started a diet. You know what you need to do — eat better and exercise — but you just haven’t found a way to do it that works for you. That is what managing anxiety feels like — you know what you need to do, but you can’t “just do it.”
I also have to work a little harder to feel happy during the winter months. After three straight years of feeling like I was constantly “in a funk” after the holidays, I realized that something had to be amiss and I went to a doctor, started taking daily vitamin D, bought a happy lamp for my desk and planned a quick trip to sunny Florida in January. There were a few rough patches, but it was the first winter in years where I didn’t spiral into a major funk from December until mid-March.
While it’s hard to believe that the Orlando shooter was in any way of sound mind, there are already so many unfair stigmas about mental health disorders and generalizing that they lead to mass violence is really inaccurate, especially for the millions of people who are on their own journeys to overcome things like anorexia, ADD or PTSD. Mental health is not about hearing voices in your head or living in a subway station talking to yourself all night – those are extreme situations where an issue was left untreated and exacerbated by a number of circumstantial factors. Stigmas? When I was in college and saw a therapist I used to go at 8:00 a.m. and park around the corner so no one would see me at the counseling center and know why I was there. You could argue that I lacked confidence, but I would argue that people treat you differently when they think there is something wrong with you and that isn’t fun, particularly for a young woman struggling with her sense of self. Clearly, I’ve overcome that, because hello, All of My Facebook Friends.
I don’t know what it is that would motivate someone to take 50 lives, but it’s not mental health alone, and whatever propelled the Orlando shooter to do what he did on Sunday morning was not a linear path. I don’t understand it, and I’m sure no one reading this understands it because it’s not something rational that a non-criminal would understand, but what I do know is that finger pointing and blame are not practical or productive.
People who have mental health issues shouldn’t have to hide who they are any more than people who love someone of the same sex should have to hide that.
We live in a scary world but instead of dwelling on that, I want to choose love, compassion and acceptance.
I hope that anyone who felt a personal loss this past weekend can find peace and that anyone who is on a journey – be it with a mental health issue or otherwise, can speak up and find the help they need to find a little bit of joy in every day and live their life in the best way they can.