Yet again, a government official has scapegoated the mentally ill as perpetrators of violence and as those who need "fixing" in the United States. On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for an overhaul of mental healthcare in the U.S., saying lawmakers had to "do more" to protect people after a shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado left three people dead. But Ryan's logic is terribly misguided and incorrect. Mental illness did not cause the Planned Parenthood shooting — anti-abortion rhetoric, religious extremism, and a lack of sensible gun control played a larger role, and blaming the mentally ill is insulting.
“One common denominator in these tragedies is mental illness," Ryan said, according to the New York Times. "That’s why we need to look at fixing our nation’s mental illness health system."
First, I want to admit that Ryan's second sentence was right. The U.S. system for mental healthcare needs so much work. It's expensive, it's difficult to find doctors — for the poor, especially — and stigma surrounding mental illness often leads people to believing they can "solve the problem" on their own, according to the Washington Post. So, sure, Ryan, fix the system. That's a great idea. But, please, don't use the Colorado shooting as the reason for it, and, also, understand that allocating funds for better mental healthcare isn't going to solve problems like the Colorado shooting.
The New York Times published an in-depth profile of Robert Dear, the man who police arrested as the primary suspect in the Colorado shooting. According to court documents obtained by the Times, Dear's wife divorced him because he allegedly beat her and cheated on her, fathering two children with other women during their marriage. Legal interviews with people who knew Dear also revealed that he navigated life with a contradictory, extremist form of Christianity. He would say that his wrongdoings would be forgiven because he believed in God and had been saved, according to the Times. Barbara Micheau, who was married to Dear for seven years, said he told her he put glue in the locks of a Planned Parenthood in Charleston, South Carolina, and was proud of himself for doing so, according to the Times:
He says that as long as he believes he will be saved, he can do whatever he pleases. He is obsessed with the world coming to an end.
One person, who spoke to the Times anonymously to protect family privacy, said Dear had praised people who attacked abortion providers as doing "God's work." During interviews after the shooting, Dear reportedly said "no more baby parts" to one of the investigators, according to the Times.
"Baby parts" have unfortunately been mentioned extensively in the political sphere since July, when the Center for Medical Progress released deceptively edited videos that purported to show that Planned Parenthood was profiting illegally from the sale of fetal tissue for scientific research. Planned Parenthood has denied all allegations and several state investigations have not found any wrongdoing on the organization's part, according to the Times.
Let's assume that anti-abortion sentiment did drive Dear's actions. That would mean he took the claims of organizations like the CMP to a logical extreme and acted out in violence. You can be anti-abortion and not support what Dear did. And acting out in violence on behalf of any view would at least be illogical — at most, it could constitute a cycle of irrational thinking that a mental health professional might call a mental illness. The same could be said of Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, who was motivated by extreme racism.
But, even if someone suffered from irrationality or a severe psychotic break, that doesn't mean society didn't have a hand in it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that a mental illness isn't the result of one event. "Research suggests multiple, interlinking causes," it says on its website. "Genetics, environment and lifestyle combine to influence whether someone develops a mental health condition."
This is where Ryan went wrong. Ryan blamed mental illness for Dear's crime. He described it as some distant thing that functions separately from society and is only happening in Dear's mind. But that's obviously not true. What we think and how we act are influence by society — whether or not society wants to admit that. When Ryan blames mental illness for Dear's actions, he's scapegoating a population of people who are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it.
More dangerously, Ryan's words place people who suffer from depression alongside murderers, further entrenching the mentally ill as people who "need help" and should be feared. Ryan's ignoring the fact that Dear's irrationality might also have been caused by false, inflammatory language and a culture of judgement.
Dear was a Christian who believed that sinners would be punished eventually, according to online comments found by the Times. This rhetoric — that there are sinners who can be stopped from sinning — isn't just present in religion. It's present in the actions of legislators who are trying to stop women from having abortions with mandatory waiting periods and forced ultrasounds. It's present in anti-abortion protestors who are allowed to verbally abuse women outside of Planned Parenthood clinics. It's present in a culture that shames women for not remaining "pure" until marriage. Dear's belief that he could stop people from getting abortions, or even Roof's belief that he could reinstate white supremacy, by shooting people is irrationality and extremism. But, when we look at the actions of anti-abortion protestors and state legislators, it's not as if his views aren't somehow replicating views that many people in the U.S. call legitimate.
Maybe a mental health professional would call Dear's and Roof's irrationality a type of mental illness. But using the term to detach Dear from our culture, which blames and often punishes women for having sex, is a kind of delusion in its own. There's a pattern in the U.S. of white men taking a perverted form of justice into their own hands with firearms, and legislators like Ryan still won't own up to it.