Mental Health, Racism, and Gun Violence: An Analysis of the Massacre in Newtown


On mental health:

Mental health should not be a topic given lip service to after every mass shooting just because the privileged ‘sane’ are fearful of the ‘insane’ – this is othering language. Othering language posits an “us” vs “them” – and usually values the commentary of “us” over “theirs”, despite issues that are being discussed affects “them” more. What does this mean?  It means that the “sane” are telling the world that other people who have mental illnesses are always inextricably linked to violence unless “sane” people help them, and that due to this link, we must fear them. It means that we only consider discussion around mental health meaningful when ‘the sane’ are believed to be affected by violence committed by people thought to have mental illnesses. Considering  mentally ill people are actually at more risk of violence being done to them as compared to non mentally ill people , this rhetoric is more hurtful and harmful to those battling mental illnesses than precipitating any real change in addressing mental health. And since the rhetoric lets us think that mental illness is only an issue when it affects people who are normatively seen as “sane”, this rhetoric allows for a mother to demonise and exploit her 13-year old son online, garnering sympathy for her (valid) frustrations and pain, but at the cost of her son’s privacy and appropriation of his experience with mental illness.  She chose this highly charged time to offer her perspective on how mental illness is linked to violence and while one can be sympathetic to her experiences, her choice to write such an article at this time is ultimately more harmful for those combating mental illness. While several people have critiqued her choice, and called out her harmful message, I doubt the criticisms will go viral or have as much impact as her original message. And her piece adds to a general culture of fear about people. Her ideas lead to a phenomenon brilliantly articulated as the “scapegoating of crazy” and further stigmatises people with mental illness.

Mental health should be an ongoing topic of discussion and NOT the go-to phrase of the day when a white man kills many people – note that mental health is never an issue when brown and black men murder because violence is seen as intrinsic to our communities and our men. Note that mental health is now used synonymously with “trying to explain the supposedly unexplainable: ie, violence in white communities.” – when in fact, mental health affects all our communities, and intersects with other ways in with our communities structure violence. So I don’t think that making mental health the sole issue here to explain away white shooting – but definitely address it in the long term, because it is an issue affecting all our communities, be they white, black, yellow, brown, red. They affect our communities in complex ways and do injure people suffering from these issues, and so the dialogue around mental health needs to be broadened.

And maybe the next time brown or black men murder, we can talk about how the pressures in these communities also lend themselves to mental illness, rather than attributing their violence to their race – but an honest, non-triggering discussion of this can only occur once we make space for people with mental illnesses to continually share their stories, express their perspectives, without fear of condemnation, or fearing ‘sane’ people’s backlash and violence. Such a discussion can only be had if we recognise that “violence in the community could [only] be reduced by less than five percent if major mental disorders could be eliminated.” And such a discussion will only be fruitful if we continue to talk about mental illness outside the context of murders or violent shootings , and recognise that the vast majority of mental illnesses do not result in any more violence than by so-called sane communities. We cannot use mental illness as a ‘convenient’ explanation for such violence when it’s clear that 95% of violence in the community is carried out by our perfectly ‘sane’ neighbours – and we ought to stake a moral claim in avoiding such stigmatisation because it is honestly traumatising for people with mental illnesses to constantly see media speculations about how violence must be linked to mental health. And make no mistake; the discourses around mental health and violence is convenient – for whom? For the NRA, for one, who want to divert attention from gun control and regulation. And for many white communities at large who are unused to confronting violence in their communities as a specific brand of violence centered around white masculinity.

On the racialised and gendered nature of these crimes: 
Just as white and western media point to systemic violence in brown communities and black communities and yellow communities and elaborate their perspectives on our strict parents, pressures within our lives, the ways in which sexism, misogyny, and violence are structured in our communities through honour killings, the rhetoric of terrorism, so too is it now a time to look at how white communities structure violence in their men.

“A few years ago, U.S. News ran a story entitled: “A Shocking look at blacks and crime.” Yet never have they or any other news outlet discussed the “shocking” whiteness of these shoot-em-ups.” And we need to start talking. We need to unmask the rhetoric linking white murderers to mental illness to expose the hidden racialised implications – because the idea that when white men shoot children there is “no explanation other than insanity because how could someone sane do such a thing?!” is really troubling, particularly because that such rhetoric is never heard when the shooter is a brown man or a black man, in which case violence is attributed to some sort of intrinsic defect in our communities of colour.

The predominant theme of most media messages surrounding the shooting in Connecticut highlight the fact that white folk, on the whole, are convinced that nothing in their communities can at all precipitate violence and because it is ‘unexplainable’ – and to them, at least, such violence is unexplainable, since they haven’t bothered looking at the long, bloody history of violence by white people, they turn to “madness” or similar pseudo-explanations by which they can distance their white “sane” bodies and selves from such violence. From the Norway massacre, to the Colarodo shootings, to the shootings in Wisconsin, to the Columbine massacre, to the Polytechnique murders and so many others, we are seeing a consistent pattern in mass murders and violence committed by white men who are hateful to women, people of colour, and other demographics – though these are just a few of the reasons precipitating these attacks. Just as the media pointed to the shooter’s Korean background during the Virgina Tech massacres, so should we take a good hard long look at white communities, and explore Why Most Mass Murderers are Privileged White Men particularly with the rise of right wing-ideologies all across Europe, the United States, and Canada. 

On guns: 
Man, fuck guns. I cannot believe this is even a discussion but the 2nd amendment is now anachronistic for so many reasons. Ain’t no Britishers trying to take over “your” colonised land built on murder ,genocide, and exploitation of red people, black people, and yellow people, Americans. Obviously better regulations are needed and we need to move beyond the “guns don’t kill people! people kill people!” rhetoric. Guns make the killing a hell of a lot easier don’t they? And why is it that gun violence is so high in the United States compared to other parts of the world? We must look to better regulations, but talking about gun violence is for me, tiring – because it seems such an obvious thing to do. (And also because I’m obsessed with institutional ethnography right now and…. ok huge tangent for another post) It’s refreshing to see hardened dissenters against gun control change their minds and well… melt a bit, be shaken up a bit. But individuals changing their mind is not enough – a paradigm shift needs to occur. 

An Intersectional Approach to Better Understanding, Healing, and Moving Forward
My intention in writing this, I hope you’ll see is not to force people to pick between gun regulations OR mental health all the while ignoring the obvious gendered and racialised dynamic of these shootings. This is predominantly the nature of the discourse offered by news outlets such as CNN, and it is narrowminded, shortsighted, and doomed to fail in addressing or preventing such violence and bloodshed. We need ways to see HOW mental health, gun regulations, and violence in white communities are structured – and this includes all the ways in which we talk about mental health and all the times we choose to ignore it.: ie – when sane people perceive the mentally ill to be a threat, suddenly mental illness matters. Never mind the poor fucks struggling with their illness their entire lives. This includes the racialised choices we make when we talk about gun violence, ie: when black youth die in Chicago and the death toll of youths there is greater than Afghanistan’s, we don’t hear so much as a whisper from the news stations. We don’t hold nationally televised vigils for mass numbers of black kids dying. And when black and brown men commit violence, we only talk about their blackness and their brownness and ignore how mental health, access to weapons, and how violence is structured in those communities. Currently, we have only gun talk and madness talk when white people shoot up. And we only have structural-violence talk when brown/black men shoot up. We need to broaden the dialogue here. We need to follow long term goals in talking about mental health and start the process of unlinking the superficial, senationalist ways in which mental illness is linked to violence and only violence.  We need to look at ways in which these factors – like  gun control, racism, economic and financial frustration – that we’re talking individually about intersect and interact within communities to create a complex structure that enables and promotes violence. 

How to channel grief
As a general policy, in the aftermath of such horrific crimes: Remember the victims, not the shooter. You’ll note that I gave the location of shootings in recent history, but I did not name the perpetrators, though they might show up in the articles I linked because the current nature of our media is to glorify violence. And we do not want to glorify violence or people who commit violence. Let us shift our focus to love, kindness, and memories of victims. Remember the dead. Remember their names and faces. Remember those who died trying to save children. Let our reactions and responses be about grief, mourning, love, compassion, and sorrow – but not centered around fear. Let our media report on the victims and keep in mind that every bit of screen time or space on a newspaper devoted to the killer could have instead been used to remember victims.

***update: I’ve received a few comments from people privately asking why I have not addressed the obviously hypocritical nature of Obama’s statement regarding the Newtown massacre as compared to the >60 deaths of youth in Pakistan due to drone strikes, which is no surprise considering that in 2006, 69 children were murdered by the CIA in a single day – and written off as collateral damage by the USA even though the CIA specifically flattened an entire school in order to kill the actual target, the headmaster. People have also asked why I haven’t elaborated on the obviously racialised nature of “deaths of children who don’t make the news“. I did try to address the latter point, but I agree it could be developed. As to the former issue, with respect to the US military and government valuing white children within US borders over brown ones they actively seek to kill, well –  I am working on weaving these very relevant issues into my response. I have included links here with articles that express my concerns. 

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5 Responses to Mental Health, Racism, and Gun Violence: An Analysis of the Massacre in Newtown

  1. yiyime says:

    No one chooses to be mentally ill , it is society , including the medical profession that attaches such a negative stigma to mental illness , which motivates others to hide their children or their own mental health issues , thus not seeking some type of treatment. The only thing society at large is interested in is how to profit along with the pharmaceutical companies to prescribed and to manufacture , mostly poisoned medications that make the mentally ill more prone to violence. As a health care professional , I seen first hand , how they lockup the mental illness individuals and the type of treatment they received. Funny how people complain about the inhumane treatment of animals , yet no many seem to care about our own human species.
    In general people with mental health issues are and should be more fearful of others , since they vulnerable at best.

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    • kshyama says:

      I agree; breaking down stigma around vulnerable populations is so important!

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      • yiyime says:

        We as a society need to become active advocates
        for mental illness as it affects everyone . We need to stop blaming these unfortunately individuals and focus on awareness . Just last night Nancy Grace was on CNN , blaming the young male who killed these children. Whether we like it or not , this young man was also a victim of this tragic event

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  2. Adam says:

    Newtown is a tragedy that has to spark discussion about the society we live in. Along those lines, I want to share an amazing short film called “A Perfect Day” about a potential mass shooter on the morning of, and an unsuspecting stranger who opens the shooter’s eyes to the implications of what he’s about to do. Powerful stuff!

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    • kshyama says:

      While I appreciate the need for dialogue, I disagree with the focus of the video as again, it is a commentary about troubled people from the perspective of the untroubled. We are instead given an idea about “people like Max”. I want to move away from speculation about the motives behind these shooters and ‘individual one on one counseling’ as a means to address these issues because I do not think they are effective. Instead, I want to move towards a systems approach, to see how violence is structured in society. And, as a side note – the movie’s kind of ageist “I know you’re in pain, but I got years of pain on you”? When was the last time students or youth actually felt that was meaningful, even if true? And doesn’t that approach talk down to youth? The video positions mental illness and/or teen ‘angst’ as the source of these problems in American society and I think the problems are much more deeper rooted than that. I believe problems include economic frustrations, racial tensions involving the slow dismantling of white men’s privilege, easy accessibility to weapons mediated through lack of gun control regulations, and bullying/harassment/verbal abuse/physical abuse in schools that lead youth to be constantly exposed to negative environments.

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