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Kenyon GS: Roseburg highlights need to reexamine importance of mental health

In the wake of Thursday’s mass shooting tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., President Obama gave a statement to the press. As he expressed sympathies to the community and the lives affected, he offered a strong disdain for the repetitive nature of mass shootings in the United States. Referring to the “routine” nature of such evil acts, he prescribed a deeper look at the politics and lack of insight on the state of gun laws in the United States.


The problem here is the delegation of blame. America needs to examine the individuals committing these evil acts, not simply the tools they employ.


Obama referred to this tragedy as necessary to politicize, as it is directly linked to our body politic. That is, it lightly touches every single one of us — even across our very campus, where we are fortunate to have not been subject to such a heinous act. But I think before we politicize anything, the facts must be thoroughly analyzed.


As calls of stricter gun laws and restrictions on access surfaced across the media landscape over the weekend, so did the profile of the assailant: 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer. Described as “introverted,” “reclusive” and the subject of peculiar behavior around his home and online, Mercer was characterized in a thematically similar way to the individuals behind mass shootings in the not-so-distant past.


Mercer led a private life, protected by a guarding mother who aided his gun-purchasing habits, Time reported. Where have we heard this before? This is eerily familiar to the family dynamic between the gunman behind the Sandy Hook tragedy, Adam Lanza, and his mother Nancy, whom many have blamed for allowing her son access to the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that he used in the massacre. 


What these parents — and perhaps others closely linked to the gunmen — lacked was the ability to identify the larger state of their children’s mental health. While this nuance receives attention in the wake of a tragedy, it too often seems to be the less immediately gratifying political target to strike. Despite our society’s rush to demonize an icon of tragedy — the weapon — we continuously ignore the critical factor: the mental state of the individual holding the weapon.


In August, Arlene Holmes, the mother of the gunman behind the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., expressed grief but also the need to press for greater work in mental health causes. “I have heard people say mass shooting cannot be prevented,” Holmes said in court. “I do not wish to succumb to this defeatist attitude. I promise everyone we will continue to educate people.”


Mental health is a part of American society that is considerably overlooked in terms of ensuring adequate access, knowledge and funding. In late August, fashion designer Kenneth Cole generated media attention to the state of mental health in America with a provocative billboard over New York City’s busy West Side Highway. It read: “Over 40 million Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care … All can access guns.” The message was followed by two hashtags: #GunReform and #AreYouPuttingUsOn?


The American Psychological Association criticized Cole’s billboard as misleading, incorrectly correlating mental illness with gun violence and potentially giving mental health a negative stigma. But the APA did acknowledge that the billboard brings attention to the fact that approximately 38 percent of adults in the United States diagnosed with a mental health condition are able to receive adequate care. While Cole’s billboard remained true to the fashion icon’s habit of making flamboyant political statements, it nevertheless successfully highlighted the chronic need for greater access and awareness of mental health treatment options.


The questions have to be asked: If Laurel Harper or Nancy Lanza had been more aware of the signs of mental health conditions, would they have been able to sooner recognize the dangerous peculiarities of their sons? If America defeated the stigma around mental health and galvanized for expanded access to services, would a tragedy be avoided? Would even one more life be saved?


Guns will not disappear from our American culture anytime soon. As politicians, advocacy groups and emotional individuals rally against guns in the days and months to come, their collective efforts will be hollow at best. Why? No, I am not agreeing with common pro-gun talking points that more guns will save us, because they will not. I am simply understanding the true force behind the gun: the individual.


This is a time when our society must look at the individual and understand what brought him or her to such an evil act. Shame on Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, as he refuses to even mention the name of the Roseburg gunman in his interactions with the press. Not discussing the gunman at this juncture is denying the press, and our society, the ability to examine the key piece of evidence: the person that woke up on Thursday and decided to commit a massacre.


Ian Kenyon GS is a public affairs candidate with the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He can be reached at ian_kenyon@brown.edu.



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