Why We Need To Talk About Mental Illness In The Wake Of The Charleston AME Shooting

Still, is privilege enough to explain why we seem to have a pretty robust group of young, usually white, men who isolate themselves and eventually go on to commit mass murder? Is racism the only reason that nine people died in Charleston last week, or is there something more going on here?

First, let's get this out of the way: not all white men do anything. I don't need your #notallmen hashtags or your education about the "oppression" white men in America face today. 

What I do need are answers, and these answers go beyond "just" racism or "just" mental illness. The answers I am looking for are to big, ugly questions that sometimes seem far too large to answer. And one of those questions is this:

Why the fuck are some young white men so angry? 

I know that the party line is that they are privileged and entitled, and that they react with rage to anyone who attempts to topple that dynamic. And, to some extent, I believe it. I'm sure that part of their anger stems from feeling that their privilege is being threatened, perhaps even resenting the idea that their accomplishments are less valuable when they are earned from a place of privilege. Most people aren't very familiar with the idea of intersectionality, either, so maybe these men are enraged by the idea of having privilege at all if they are part of an oppressed class in other ways. I mean, if you're poor and gay, you might have a pretty hard time feeling privileged even though you're also a white and male. 

Still, is privilege enough to explain why we seem to have a pretty robust group of young, usually white, men who isolate themselves and eventually go on to commit mass murder? Is racism the only reason nine people died in Charleston last week, or is there something more going on here?

The fact is that none of the mass murders in recent memory (and, sadly, there are plenty to choose from) share a common theme, except for the profile of the shooter. While the Charleston shooting was racially motivated, UCSB, Sandy Hook, and even Columbine's were not. Some of the shooters murdered adults, some murdered children — they have much more in common themselves than their victims. 

It has become taboo to discuss mental illness in the context of a violent white man, and I get it. Really, I do. When an unarmed black man is labeled a "thug" for being murdered by the cops, and a white man who shoots up a church is labeled "mentally ill," it reeks of a double standard. It seems even worse to examine the shooter's mental health when the crime itself was racially motivated, as it was with the Charleston shooting. But the reason that no one is asking about the mental health of black men who commit mass murders is that they don't seem to exist. 

Certainly, it's some racist bullshit that black victims of crime are criminalized instead of the people who murdered them. The same is also true of rape victims who are examined under a microscope while their rapists are called "good kids" with solid college prospects and a "bright future." It's enraging, and it is indicative of a deep-seated vein of racism and sexism in America. But it doesn't change the fact that it's white men with guns who seem to be committing acts of domestic terrorism whenever they get angry. 

I have a hard time believing, though, that this anger grows in a vacuum. Sure, these men are taught to be racist and sexist — there is no denying that. But simply being racist or sexist doesn't lead people to commit mass murder. Some of the young men who committed these mass murders had no racial or sexual component to their crimes at all. There is something else that compels these individuals to commit mass murder, and I don't think that has anything to do with racism.

This kid — and I won't use his name because I refuse to learn it — didn't commit mass murder because he was racist. He committed this particular murder because he was racist. If he didn't have the black community to fixate on, he would have found someone else to hate and to blame and to ultimately kill. Black people were just the group he chose to hate.

Whatever led this man to murder had to have been deeper in his psyche than just racism. Hell, his family said he became a loner and recently began isolating himself. His classmates knew he did drugs before he dropped out of high school. He had already committed a few small crimes. His roommate said he had been planning to commit murder in just this type of way! Everyone around him ignored the flashing neon signs of problems, and then his dad gave him a gun for his birthday. Because what could possibly go wrong?

It's important here to pause and recognize that this kid didn't actually shoot anyone until he was given a gun. He was a legal adult who made no attempt whatsoever to purchase a gun or to kill anyone until it was essentially handed to him (thanks for all of that vital unrestricted access to guns that are used to kill ourselves and each other, NRA). But even more importantly, all of the signs of mental illness were there with this kid, and not a single person did a goddamn thing. He didn't see a counselor or receive a mental health evaluation. Absolutely nothing was done until he killed nine innocent people, and now he will be sent to prison where — yet again — nothing will be done to address his mental health concerns.

It's hard for me not to believe that we failed this kid just as much as we failed Michael Brown. We have done nothing to improve access to mental health care or to reduce access to guns — just as we have done nothing to hold cops accountable for their violent actions. We sit around arguing and clinging to "our rights" while our children beg us to help them, and then we blame them when they snap or when someone else snaps and kills them. We are all humans, not animals or evil, and it is time that we stop trying to explain away violence with "other" speak. Mental illness, disenfranchisement, and rage are facets of humanity, and it's time that we face them head-on. 

I don't know what lurks in the mind of the Charleston shooter, but I doubt that it's rosy. I don't know how or why he became consumed by hatred, but I think it was preventable. And while preaching tolerance and taking a firm stand against racism is important, it doesn't magically cure mental health concerns or ensure that guns aren't readily accessible to those who use them to harm others. 

We need real, affordable mental health care and we need it now. We need to stop calling each other "crazy" and start learning about how our own mental health issues impact us and others. We need a culture that applauds asking for help and instills a sense of personal responsibility without blame or shame. We need to remove the stigma of mental illness. We need to recognize that most mentally ill people aren't violent, but that there are red flags that merit our immediate attention and intervention. We need a criminal justice system that focuses on identification and treatment of mental illness alongside rehabilitation, not punishment and death. And we need all of these things to be equally applied to all races and sexes, not just to white men. 

I don't know how we get there, but I do know that it isn't by continuing to pretend that mental illness doesn't exist. Our sons, brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, and friends are angry as hell, and they are killing us and raping us. It is time that we start asking the big, ugly question of why.

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