on scapegoats

Another month, another mass shooting in the United States. Thus far, the public reaction to yesterday’s tragedy remains fundamentally unchanged: gun control advocates demand stricter access and the gun rights lobby lauds the Second Amendment and individualism as the American way. The disparity is superficial. The barest review of mainstream media coverage and the accompanying public commentary reveals one common goal, and that is the search for a scapegoat.

Don’t blame guns. Blame crazy people.

Adam Lanza had autism/depression/insert condition here.

Just ban crazy people from buying guns. Lock them up. 

Even reasonable suggestions–ones that address the myriad inadequacies in our approach to mental health care–categorize the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder as a precursor to homicidal behavior. It’s a neat trick. Mental illness is considered intrinsically irrational. The mentally ill are visibly deviant and therefore, it’s far easier to blame violent behavior on the voices in someone’s head rather than collectively accept responsibility for our national obsession with guns.  And how can the mentally ill fight back? To be considered mentally ill is, as far as society is concerned, to be in possession of totally illegitimate emotional processes. If you are afraid, your fears are no more substantial than shadows in the night. If you love, you are obsessed; if you are angry, you have merely overreacted. The spectrum of mental illness, which actually reflects the full complexity of human behavior, is reduced to its most outrageous elements.

It’s a process that I find too familiar. This post is not intended to establish its author as the self-appointed spokesperson for depression or trauma. And I realize that by publicizing my diagnoses, I risk forever being known as A Depressed Person rather than a person who is occasionally depressed. Yet when the face of mental illness is popularly assigned to a gunman engaged in the slaughter of kindergarten students, I believe it’s necessary to offer an alternative perspective. I have major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and I am not a homicidal maniac. In fact, I have no history of violent behavior, and I  also work with children. Maybe I’ve even worked with your children, and if I have, I think you’ll agree that they are unquestionably alive and unharmed. In fact, I have no history of abuse, physical or otherwise, and although I respect the confidence of the man who walked into my local McDonald’s barking like a seal I have not been known to do this, either. Sober or otherwise. And on that note: no, I do not self-medicate. I simply get depressed.

Depression is a very dull disease. Wake up, sit in bed, contemplate the crushing futility of my own continued existence, go back to sleep. Repeat. That’s depression. When I stare into the abyss I only see myself staring back. And I say this to make it very clear that you cannot, you simply cannot, reduce depression, or any other mental illness, to its most fantastic attributes because it does not come near to accurately describing the lives of the tens of millions of individuals who experience it every day of their respective existences. I am not the exception. If statistics are correct, I am the norm. The overwhelming majority of mental health patients are non-violent or restrict their violence to themselves.You might find the barking of the aforementioned McDonalds customer obnoxious, but no one died that day.

So I would like to know why I, and not the gun lobby, have become America’s scapegoat. I would like to know why the concentration of chemicals in a person’s brain is considered their defining attribute. I would like to know this because it seems obvious even to this former mental patient that it is irrational to ignore our cultural obsession with guns, our pathological individualism and our dedication to a national mythology that idolizes cowboys vs. Indians and its military when confronted with an act of exceptional violence.

According to a poll released this past July, American support for gun control has fallen steadily since the infamous Columbine massacre. As of 2012, it remained at an all time low. I was ten years old when Columbine occurred. I remember my shock and a sudden new fear of high school. Eight years later, as a new college freshman, I spent a day glued to my computer and my cell phone waiting for news of my friends at Virginia Tech. They lived. Some of their friends didn’t. But my home state of Virginia still boasts some of the laxest gun laws in the United States.

As I prepare to return to the US after sixteen months in England, I have two questions for my fellow Americans: why are people like me your focus when tragedy happens? And if madness is irrationality then don’t you think it’s finally time for you to re-examine your dedication to your guns? Perhaps we’ve got to redefine madness; maybe we ought to expand our understanding of instability and irrationality. Right now, my depression seems the only reasonable response to a society that deliberately refuses to hold itself accountable for its own toxic attitudes toward violence.


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