Like the rest of the country, I’m saddened by the shooting in Las Vegas. There are many valid reactions to have — concern for others, relief that your friends are safe, and anger at the shooter. One thing I’m seeing, though, concerns me.
Waking up to the buzz around Jimmy Kimmel’s Monday night monologue, I decided to watch it. But instead of the outpouring of support for victims and righteous anger at systems which allow guns to become even deadlier, what I heard was discrimination.
More specifically, a lot of ableist rhetoric.
Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. This can include a variety of things — from failure to provide accessibility, or using hurtful language, to making assumptions about disabilities.
Despite initial ableist assumptions, the shooter Stephen Paddock hasn't been found to have had any mental illness. That hasn’t stopped people like Kimmel insinuating that Paddock must have been mentally ill, because this isn’t how “normal” people act.
Referring to Paddock as a “very sick person,” Kimmel says: “All these devastated families who now have to live with this pain forever because one person with a violent and insane voice in his head managed to stockpile a collection of high-powered rifles and use them to shoot people.”
“You know, in February, [President Donald Trump] also signed a bill that made it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns legally,” he says, later referring to legislation that makes it easier to access guns without background checks.
He makes these comments during Mental Illness Awareness Week, a week during which those of us who live with mental illness try to break down barriers, shatter stigmas, and encourage conversation around mental health. Instead, we’re finding our voices drowned out by people who don’t understand the harm they’re doing.
As someone who’s mentally ill, I’m tired of people resorting to the age-old misconception that mental illness is the cause of all evil. Being mentally ill does not mean I am a dangerous person or that I will harm others.
In fact, statistics paint a much different picture for our community. The vast majority of violent acts — upwards of 95 percent — do not involve mental illness. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that people with mental illnesses are up to 10 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than we are to commit one.
We need to address what causes mental illness
It’s estimated that up to 20 percent of U.S. adults live with a mental illness. But while society consistently wants to blame mental health for the actions of individual people, it often refuses to address many of the things that can contribute to the onset of a mental illness in the first place.
Growing up in an abusive, poverty-stricken home caused my own PTSD. But very little is ever said about how adverse childhood experiences, socioeconomic status, or living with a physical chronic illness can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other conditions. Or about how people within the LGBT+ community are more than twice as likely to have a mental health condition, attempt suicide, and face discrimination while searching out mental health care. Even race can play a role.
Our identities — or, rather, how they’re treated by society — can contribute as well. Discrimination, access, insurance, poverty, transportation, stigma, and language barriers can all contribute to a lack of treatment or even a diagnosis.
It’s facts like these that Kimmel and others who blame mental illness for violent acts fail to understand. Instead, they continue to perpetuate stigmas that prevent people from getting treatment.
This isn’t anything new. Ableism continues to pervade our society, from restricting the rights of the mentally ill and telling ‘jokes’ about disabilities, to poor representation in the media. I was hoping that the recent actions of disabled protesters fighting the Graham-Cassidy bill would raise some awareness. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
There are people who commit horrible acts without mental illness coming into play. Sometimes this is due to a lack of empathy and compassion for others. Other times, it’s arbitrary. Harming another person is not a symptom of mental illness. Awful human beings exist, regardless of their mental or physical state.
Be our allies
This is supposed to be the one week where we can speak openly about stigmas we face as people living with mental illness. To be facing widespread discrimination and demonization instead is terrifying. Words matter, and these kinds of words can contribute to emotional pain but also physical attacks on us.
What our community needs are allies, not more harm. If you are someone who hasn’t thought about the words you use around these kinds of all-too-familiar events, it’s time to start paying attention to your language. Are you blaming mentally ill people for acts that aren’t ours? Are you ‘othering’ us by using phrases that make your friends with mental illness uncomfortable? Are you actively fighting these stigmas to help erase misconceptions about mental illness?
At the very least, please stop assuming mental illness is always tied to terror. Stop harming our communities because you’re impatient to learn what drives someone to commit horrible acts. All you do when you make comments like Kimmel has, is make it harder for us to live full lives. You're perpetuating violence against us as you promote ableist ideas.
Please, just stop.
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. She recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten at chronicsex.org and follow her on Twitter.