The Common Good

We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Conversations about the shooting that occurred in Isla Vista a little over two weeks ago didn't have the chance to fade away before being bulldozed by an entirely new tragedy—the shooting that happened on Thursday on Seattle Pacific University’s campus. Tragedy after tragedy is occurring and my fear is that we will just start to view these events as “another shooting.” We pray unceasingly that gun reform will come, and I am grateful for the many faith leaders and advocates who support common sense reform, but as a society we often diminish the weight that another issue holds: mental illness. 

Heart and mind. Vector image courtesy frikota/shutterstock.com
Heart and mind. Vector image courtesy frikota/shutterstock.com

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We of course do not have full clarity in either case, but reports are saying that both Elliot Rodger and Aaron Ybarra have a history of mental health concerns. It is important that we do not directly associate mental illnesses with violence, as many who have struggled with their mental health have no desire to hurt others. But in the case of mass shootings, there is a correlation that needs to be discussed.

In a recent conversation with friends about what happened on Seattle Pacific’s campus, my heart was made even heavier when I thought about the future. My children and my children’s children will look in their history books one day and demand an explanation for the heading they may read: The Generation of Mass Shootings. Unfortunately, history textbooks do not do the best job at exposing the truths and the ills of our country, whether factual—“Christopher Columbus Discovers America”—or thematic —"America: The Land of Opportunty." I wonder what American history books will say about the treatment we provided for those who suffer from mental illness.

In regards to mass shootings, reports often use mental illness as an adjective when describing the assailant, but it is rare that we will see more than a sentence or two on the psychological wellbeing of the offender. Our public discussions tend to focus on what is clear: there was a killer, there was a weapon, there was or wasn’t a motive, and valuable lives were lost. We entirely forget to care why the gunman felt the need to shoot, to kill, to destroy valuable life. If we could answer those questions, would we be able to prevent such tragedies?

We are an uneducated country when it comes to care for mental health. Many do not realize that one in four individuals will suffer with a mental health issue in a given year — and that these statistics can often be our friends, family, or ourselves. At the same time we mock people who are "crazy" and judge those suffering from mental illness who find themselves homeless, incarcerated, or perpetrators of violent crimes. We show no remorse for the individuals who are housed in jail because of the sickness and/or addiction with which they are plagued. We ignore the cries of those who hear voices of the unknown in their heads. Instead, we make sure to speak loudly over them and criticize those who are most in need. After tragedies like what happened in Isla Vista and on Seattle Pacific’s campus, we listen to the voices of victims’ families and mourn with them as they share stories of their lost loved ones. But we ignore an even more painful story about the lives of the gunmen.

Family members of victims deserve our sympathies and our prayers. We should be crying with them and our hearts should be aching alongside of them but there is another group that deserves our sympathies and prayers as well.  Where are we as a church in supporting those who are unable to fully emotionally, socially, and mentally support themselves?

In your opinion, if these shooters are our enemies, then call them that.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Luke 7:27-28, NIV

In your opinion, if you see these shooters as sick, then help them find treatment.

The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by [God]; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world…I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25:34, 36, NIV

Whatever your opinion may be, I hope we can call them our friends, and do so before they hurt others and themselves.

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. John 13:34-34, NLT

It is easier for us emotionally and mentally to place blame on someone instead of accept fault. I myself have trouble processing any crime committed by someone who has struggled with mental health issues.  It is impossible to put 100 percent of the blame on them and it is impossible to relieve them of the fault.

Just because we can’t provide clarity to the situation doesn’t mean we can’t start talking about it. God has given me a passion for mental health advocacy but for some reason, throughout my entire life I have never heard a sermon on the issue. Wake up, church! Realize that when we preach “We are all made in the image of God,” that includes our brothers and sisters we choose to ignore and who fall to the evils of this world. That includes violent criminals we respond to with hate. That includes Elliot Rodger, Aaron Ybarra, Steven Kazmierczak, Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, and too many others. Is there a limit to extending grace and forgiveness to these individuals? I wish I could  say yes, but I know Jesus would say no.

My prayer is that if anything positive can come of these recent tragedies, conversations in the church would begin. My prayer is that as followers of Christ, we would begin supporting and reaching out to our brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness. Maybe in doing so we could reach the small percentage of those whose illness creates violence. Maybe with knowledge, outreach, and love, we could prevent the next tragedy from occurring. 

Jessica Breslin is Mobilizing Assistant for Sojourners.

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