Albert Einstein never actually said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” but if he had, it would have applied perfectly to the threadbare conversation our nation is having once again in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings. Here’s our president pithily weighing in on our country’s next steps following these back-to-back massacres:
Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun. . . . We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement.”
And, here’s the expected rebuttal from the American Psychological Association:
Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded & stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.
It seems almost superfluous to mention, as noted this week in a Washington Post report, that “fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010 were carried about by people diagnosed with mental illness,” according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Or a joint FBI/Secret Service report on shooter profiles that goes so far as to say, “Diagnosed mental illness is not a very specific predictor of violence of any type, let alone targeted violence. . . . In short, declarations that all active shooters must simply be mentally ill are misleading and unhelpful” (emphases mine).
I say superfluous, because this same public argument has appeared following similar gun related tragedies over (at least) the last 12-15 years. Here’s Yale School of Medicine professor Deborah Doroshow commenting on our rinse-and-repeat response to a uniquely American tragedy:
Mental health services undoubtedly need and deserve increased funding. But we should take care not to make this the defining lesson of each mass shooting. Doing so stigmatizes the mentally ill and prevents us from having the sorts of hard conversations that we need to have about what really causes mass shootings and how we can prevent them.
Even as a theologically educated Baptist pastor and trained psychotherapist who works with students, couples and whole families exhibiting pervasive mental health issues, it can be overwhelming to understand how to be helpful in the midst of a sea of influences working in the opposite direction. However, the one thing I find repeatedly playing an outsized role in the efficacy, consistency and availability of one’s mental health treatment is the amount of money that person is willing and able to pay for competent and consistent care.
“In our gun-saturated and violent culture, what’s something we, as people of faith, might do differently?”
As with almost everything else in our country, poverty (even of the “middle class” variety) and a lack of affordable and accessible healthcare arguably play a much greater role than “mental illness” in the creation of an entire class of people unable to “adjust” in an economic, social, scholastic, religious and political climate defined by anxiety, fear and class-based scarcity.
Even among those who do have access to healthcare, our country’s commitment to a culture steeped in shame and competition has reaped an entire generation of children whose average anxiety rates are at higher levels than those of child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. Americans have created a culture defined by income inequality, ruled by inherited wealth and held together by an unimpeachable commitment to personal responsibility as the explanation for one’s place in a morass of debt, job insecurity and lack of affordable healthcare.
Add the ever-increasing amount of time American children and adults spend in front of screens and the rising rates of inactivity and sleep deprivation and you have the makings of a profoundly unwell republic. And, as Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti famously noted “it is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Because I am a glutton for punishment, I hammered out a hastily constructed Facebook post in the immediate aftermath of El Paso and Dayton. Much to my surprise, two people I know and love began having a passionate argument with one another in the comments. I then, because of the aforementioned gluttony, looked up another firearm massacre post from last year and the same two people were having an eerily similar interaction.
“The one thing I find repeatedly playing an outsized role in the efficacy, consistency and availability of one’s mental health treatment is the amount of money that person is willing and able to pay for competent and consistent care.”
One of my psychotherapy mentors is fond of saying “just do one thing differently, just one thing that you didn’t do before, because that’s where real change lies, in a place where it’s already happening.” In the midst of another unhelpful debate reeking of the amnesia of previously unhelpful debates about background checks, bump stock regulations, mental health funding and the stoking fires of vitriolic political rhetoric, I’m wondering: What’s one thing we might do (or perhaps some of us are already doing) differently?
When Jesus left the tomb on the third day after his crucifixion he was mistaken for the gardener by one of his closest followers, Mary, after she had disappointingly found his tomb empty. I’ve always been struck by the way Mary, bordering on exasperation, asks the gardener where have they “laid my Lord?!” Here she was, in the wake of the death and desecration of the one thing that had given her life gravity and meaning for the last three years, just trying to do the one thing she knew to do next, and she almost misses the new thing right in front of her.
I can’t help but wonder: In our gun-saturated and violent culture, what’s something we, as people of faith, might do differently?
Maybe it’s joining Moms Demand Action, writing letters to members of Congress and campaigning for politicians who support sensible and straightforward gun legislation.
Maybe it’s joining your community high school’s local PTA, asking administrators, teachers and school staff for ways you, your family and your faith community can partner with the most vulnerable students in tangible, lovingly consistent ways.
Maybe it’s asking hard questions about what it is about our society that produces trigger-pulling “evil men” in such great numbers and what ways we are ourselves are keeping the toxicity and vitriol in circulation.
Maybe it’s just putting down our phones, hugging our kids, going for a walk, inviting our neighbors over for pie, picking up trash at the park and working to make our communities the kind of places where people look one another in the eye, disagree sometimes, laugh often and remember that the one thing that has been able to counteract everything from depression to diphtheria is the presence of another human person who reminds us that we aren’t alone no matter what.
At the very least, perhaps the next right thing for us is to take a deep breath and pause for a moment in the realization that our president isn’t altogether wrong – gun deaths in America are driven by a mental health crisis. However, instead of that un-wellness resting upon a lone shooter or evil terrorist, it is visited upon all of us who still believe that the same circular conversation will actually result in something different.
Einstein never called this kind of clinical stubbornness insanity, but I find that these days I’m struggling to come up with a better term for it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several opinion articles by our columnists and regular opinion contributors, along with several unsolicited submissions, written in the aftermath of mass shootings on Aug. 3 in El Paso, Texas, and Aug. 4 in Dayton, Ohio.
Kathy Manis Findley | Responding to gun violence in America: the Church cannot give up
Also on this topic:
Daniel Bagby | Letter to the editor