stop-the-stigma-of-mental-illnessI have made a point not to write much about gun violence on this blog so far. There has been plenty of opportunities. After Sandy Hook. After Las Vegas. After three people died of gun violence in the early hours of the morning in downtown Lawrence a few months ago, which is just a few miles from my house. When these shootings occur, I tend to get quiet. To give myself time to grieve. For the loved ones left behind. For the victims robbed of their futures. For those of us who will never get to know them personally. We are missing out.

And I also grieve that we live in a society where this kind of thing has become all too commonplace. The tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech occurred many years ago, and nothing was done to prevent similar things from happening again. So they do. Over and over. I’m tired of seeing video clips online of distraught families who will never be the same or of the survivors who are trying to figure out the process of putting their lives back together. This has to stop. It just has to stop. I believe in my soul that kids should be able to go to school, or people should be able to go to church or a nightclub or a movie or enjoy a concert without worrying that they will get shot and killed while trying to do so.

Now seems to be the right time to talk about an issue that has always bothered me when it comes to these tragedies, although I have seen several posts about it in the last few days. Media coverage describes some physical and factual characteristics of the shooter, and typically the description ends with, “and he had been treated for a mental illness.”

I have said for years that I am tired of the stigma that mental illness has in our society. I have a diagnosis from the DSM V and sometimes I struggle with my symptoms. But I never plan on killing anyone. I would venture to guess there are few people who do.

Since I don’t have cable, there have been some years when I have gone over to friends’ houses to watch the Superbowl. Every other commercial seems like it is about erectile dysfunction. If society can talk about that subject without batting an eye, I don’t understand why some people look like they have to go to the bathroom when I let them know that I have a diagnosed mental illness. It has gotten to the point that I don’t talk about it much anymore. In my experience, it is just one more thing that makes people see me differently. So, for the most part, I only talk about my diagnosis with professionals.

Nikolas Cruz didn’t kill seventeen people in six minutes at a high school in Florida on Valentine’s Day because he had a mental illness. He did so because he had uncontrolled rage. I know the background. He was expelled from the same school last year. His mother had recently died. He had previously been reported to the FBI. But those details came out later. His treatment for mental illness was mentioned early like mental illness was an explanation for what he did. Which isn’t true. I believe that anyone who thinks it is okay to walk into a school with an AR-15 and start killing people has major problems. I just don’t believe that it is okay to put this killer in the same category as everyone else who is affected by a mental illness.

Many new moms are affected by postpartum depression. If one wanted to get technical, that is a diagnosable mental illness. So is bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and OCD and many other treatable ailments. And yet with the right supports in place anyone affected by any one of these conditions can lead productive and fulfilling lives.

Where did we as a society lose our way and decide that mental illness as a whole was something to fear? One of the things I have said to the people around me often is this: If people don’t blame me because my cerebral palsy prevents me from being able to go outside and climb a tree, they cannot blame me for the times when I exhibit symptoms of my mental illness. Neither disability is in my control and I manage in the best way that I know how. I don’t know anyone who would choose this.

Be angry with Nikolas Cruz for his actions. Don’t blame his mental illness.