It is gun control, or the lack thereof.
It is Hollywood.
It is religion, or the lack thereof.
It is radical Islam.
It is a conspiracy.
It is a “false flag” operation.
It is substance abuse.
It is toxic masculinity.
It is hatred.
It is anger management issues.
It is evil.
It is desire for fame.
There are plenty of suggestions for what causes events like the Las Vegas shooting. The one that amused me most is that men do not have close friends and don’t play enough (despite the prevalence of golf, tennis, softball, bowling, basketball, and a lot of other recreational sports). But the go-to explanation, once race and religion have faded into the background, is mental illness.
This time around the shooter is a white male belonging to no terrorist cell or cause, so he gets called a “lone wolf.” (Do I hear that resonate as a symbol of pride and freedom? Don’t rebels and renegades of all stripes identify themselves with lone wolves? Aren’t lone-wolf types celebrated in movies and TV shows and novels and video games? It’s certainly a “nicer” epithet than “terrorist.”)
And since Stephen Paddock was on one anti-anxiety medication, a (very loose) case is being made for mental illness. Again. Despite the fact that he was never diagnosed, treated, hospitalized, or gave any other indication of mental illness. Unless you count shooting hundreds of people.
Certainly a person who did what he did would be tested for mental illness after he committed such a horror, had he not killed himself. But before the fact? Was he mentally ill – a “known” hazard?
He was quiet, a loner. (Aren’t they always?) He may have had financial problems related to gambling. He took a benzo.
Think of all the quiet men you know that have financial problems, perhaps even addictions such as gambling. How many of them have stockpiled guns and shot hundreds of people? Hell, my husband is a loner with financial problems, takes an antidepressant, and has access to guns. Why hasn’t he?
Because these men – millions of them – do not become mass shooters as a rule. And when one does, well, he must have been crazy.
You and I know the statistics. One in four people will experience some form of mental disturbance in their lifetimes. Yet 25 percent of us do not become mass killers. The unfortunate fact is that there is no way to predict who is going to. Even after the fact, there is no way to say, “We should have known,” because so many people fit the criteria.
It’s a complex problem, difficult or impossible to untangle. Just as one cannot say that cyberbullying was definitely what caused a suicide, there are myriad factors at work in violence, and blaming just one “obvious” cause does not explain or help. Look at Columbine. Harris and Klebold may (or may not) have been bullied. But they also lacked supervision, had trouble with the law, and had access to guns and explosives. Can any one of those factors be viewed in isolation from the others?
There are some voices that have started to question the automatic link between mental illness and violence. Julie Beck wrote a fine article for the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/untangling-gun-violence-from-mental-illness/485906/?utm_source=fbb), which I hope will be widely read and influence many people. I’ve written about the problem too, small contribution though it may be (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6A).
Beck calls the easy leap from mass killing to mental illness “a consistent and dangerous narrative.” She points out that “[o]nly 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence). In other words, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness.”
And, she says, “Other research shows that reading stories about mass shootings by people with mental illnesses makes people feel more negatively toward the mentally ill. This only heightens stigma, which could lead to more people going untreated.”
That’s a second horror, not as sensational or sensationalized as mass killings, but a chilling one nonetheless. None of our anti-stigma campaigns speaks as loudly as gunfire.