May was supposed to be mental health awareness month. That’s ironic, considering how much depressing news there was—and how frequently mental illness was blamed for that.
In May, three mass shootings rocked the country: in Buffalo, New York, 10 people were gunned down in a supermarket; not long after, a Laguna Woods, California, church was shot up, taking one life and severely injuring at least five others; then came the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that slaughtered 21 human beings, including 19 children. And finally, yesterday’s hospital shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
This spate of horrific carnage inevitably led to much handwringing about gun control and mental illness. The first makes sense; the second doesn’t.
Mental illness is a disability
I don’t have a mental illness, at least not at the moment, not as far as I know. But many people I know and care about do.
A mental illness does not automatically make a person dangerous or violent. Yet many people—some of whom are influential—equate the two. For instance, in the wake of the Texas school slaughter, Texas governor Greg Abbott explained the situation this way: “We have a problem with mental illness in this community.”
Such views are unfair, misinformed, and ableist.
Blaming mental illness is ableist
By ableist, I mean prejudiced against disabled people. Mental illness is a disability. The language of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically defines disability as any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” or anyone who appears to be or is thought of as having such.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health ailments can severely limit major life activities. But that doesn’t mean people with these sorts of conditions are dangerous to other people.
To better understand, realize that mental illness is extremely common. According to U.S. government statistics, nearly 53 million Americans or 20% of the population live with mental illness.
Such emotional or psychological disability may not be permanent. About 18% of workers in the U.S. report having a mental health condition in any given month. The vast majority of them do get better thanks to improved treatments and services.
Villains … or victims?
Rather than being the perpetrators of crimes, many folks with mental health issues are actually victims of discrimination. “Stigma, prejudice and discrimination against people with mental illness can be subtle or it can be obvious—but no matter the magnitude, it can lead to harm,” says the American Psychiatric Association.
In the disability community, there is a very real fear that if people with mental illness are “profiled” as dangerous and blamed for rampant violence, many innocent people will be reviled and targeted by law enforcement.
When mental illness becomes scapegoating
Scapegoating people with mental illness calls to mind ages-old prejudices against disabled people.
In centuries past, people with disabilities were feared and shunned as evil. Disabilities were considered marks of the devil, or at least manifestations of sin. Think of all the hunchbacked, peg-legged, hook-handed, deformed or scarred villains of myth. Come to think of it, such characteristics are still common in movie bad guys.
The same fear and loathing surrounds invisible disabilities. People with anxiety or depression are sometimes seen as unattractive and weak. People with PTSD are often portrayed as tightly wound, enraged monsters, or sympathetic antiheroes who just can’t control themselves.
Let’s be clear: Bad behavior cannot and should not be tolerated. Bad behavior is not a disability. But mental illness is a disability. Having a mental illness is not synonymous with being dangerous or violent.
Ben Mattlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, author and frequent blogger for FacingDisability.com. He was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital muscle weakness that causes paralysis and related health issues.
Ben is the author of MIRACLE BOY GROWS UP: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity, and IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance . He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times and Financial Advisor magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and has been broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition.