It seems we’re in a perpetual state of heartbreak and anger following mass shootings. It doesn’t help that these tragedies are typically followed by fruitless debates and handwringing.
It may be inevitable that, following a mass shooting, students will engage you and their peers in discussions about mental health. They will hear about the topic everywhere, and they will naturally have questions or concerns. It’s an important discussion to have, but there are some caveats for educators.
In addition to identifying mental health issues and improving students’ access to care, schools must promote mental health literacy and reduce stigma year-round. It is critical. This is not a conversation we can only have when gun violence occurs.
Scapegoating Mental Illness
In response to the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump said during a speech, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”
In the following weeks, he has continued to make misleading generalizations—with dehumanizing language—to vilify people who have a mental illness and imply a correlation to violence.
Mental illness is a lot of things. For starters, it’s mostly undiagnosed. It affects one in five adults in the United States and one in five youth ages 13 to 18. And it’s associated with a severe and silencing stigma.
But here is one thing it is not: a blanket excuse to explain mass shootings. In rare cases, people who experience mental health disorders do carry out acts of violence. However, mental illness is often used as an easy justification to avoid difficult conversations about other systemic problems that contribute to mass shootings—problems including the use of weapons meant for war, toxic masculinity, the pervasiveness of white supremacy and the hateful rhetoric that fuels it.
The American Psychological Association recently released a statement from its president, Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis, to counteract stigmatizing narratives about mental illness. Davis says, in part:
Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and 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. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.
Yet, when mass shootings occur, politicians flood airwaves and timelines with a narrative that focuses on mental health. They forget—or choose to ignore—that people who experience mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of crime than those who don’t. They are also 16 times more likely to be killed by the police, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Race and Mental Health
When you do have these discussions, it’s critical to use an intersectional lens, as race, gender, religion, class and language all affect how students experience or perceive mental health.
Talk with students about mental illness stigma and inequitable access to adequate mental health care—and the cultural and social barriers that make this possible.
It’s also important to point out how news media narratives about mental health can differ depending on a person’s identity. Historically, people of color have not been—and still aren’t—granted the same empathy and grace as white people when it comes to mental health issues. The desire to quickly diagnose mass shooters with a mental health disorder seems to occur most often when the shooter is a white male. Even when the connection isn’t explicit, students can see how phrases like “troubled youth” are often used after deadly shootings carried out by white men.
And there’s data to back these observations. Students might discuss a 2017 study from researchers at The University of Missouri that showed how media portrayals of shooters are biased against people of color. It found, for example, that mental illness was mentioned in news stories that involved white shooters 80 percent of the time, while it was used only 16 percent of the time with black shooters. In contrast, the word “thug” was used to describe black shooters 53 percent of the time, compared to 16 percent with white shooters.
Talking with students about the ways these narratives unfold, you can help them recognize disparities in how mental health is discussed—and for whom these disparities are most apparent.
For example, too many lawmakers who call for improved mental health care are less eager to empathize when black and brown people cope with gun violence. Rather than advocating for improved access to mental health services for black and brown people (or more importantly, dismantling the systems that create these issues), they instead point to more policing and harsh prison sentences.
The truth is, any exposure to violence can lead to a cycle of physiological distress, anxiety and depression. It’s not just after mass shootings that survivors are dealing with trauma or developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The intersection of violence-induced trauma and racism can compound what people of color experience after a mass shooting.
Since the shooting in El Paso, Latinx people across the country have reported feeling targeted. And studies show that trauma stemming from the collective knowledge of violence against black people can alter perceptions of safety. And researchers note a link between racism and PTSD.
For the record, racism and white supremacy—factors attributed to the El Paso shooting—are not mental health disorders. But if we allow these ideologies to be explained away as such, we give more power to a viciousness this country has reckoned with since its founding. And we push people who experience mental health disorders into the margins.
Stigma and Empathy
It’s essential to demonstrate to students that mental health is a crucial piece of overall health, not separate from it. No student should hear sweeping or disparaging comments about people who have mental health challenges. Youth are already less likely to report any problems they may experience, and the stigma will only delay their getting access to resources and treatment. Consider the language around this topic and encourage students to avoid using stigmatizing words such as “crazy” or “psycho.”
And consider how you can support students beyond your classroom. In “Demystifying the Mind,” Teaching Tolerance talked to school officials in New York and Virginia about how they integrate mental health literacy and respond to issues in their schools. It was not enough to have counselors on hand; they felt it critical to promote mental health education while creating space for students to talk about their feelings and their problems.
From having peer helpers to training teachers to provide mental health first aid, these schools have helped to reduce stigma and build empathy.
A first step in advocating for students’ well-being is to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms that they need additional support or referral for mental health services. Teachers should seek accurate resources to guide discussions, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which has numerous tools to use in the classroom.
It is a necessary part of students’ learning experience to make room to discuss mental health. This means leading students in more nuanced conversations than the one currently dominating the news—a conversation that recognizes that mental illness isn’t a catch-all for anything that they fear, don’t understand or believe is too complex to scrutinize.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.