A Mental Illness by Another Name

by Danielle Drawhorn

Twenty years ago, two boys walked into their high school and killed twelve of their classmates and one teacher in Columbine, a word synonymous with death and terror. While not the first mass shooting to occur, the Columbine massacre has remained in the American consciousness while others have faded, and it hasn’t been the last. Every year, America sees more and more mass shooting events, from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook and Midland. Everyone is on edge and looking for answers. Many people believe they have found it in the mental health, or lack thereof, in the shooters. 

In an interview after the Parkland High shooting, President Donald Trump said that “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.” Many Americans want to believe most shooters struggle with their mental health and suffer from severe depression or something more complex, like schizophrenia. These factors, people theorize, cause mental illness sufferers to violently lash out at perceived “threats”. Furthermore, many who do not kill themselves or are killed in their shooting spree attempt to use an insanity defense in court, which only adds fuel to the fire. 

While it may be a common thread, people are still unsure about what to do with this information, especially because there is research that shows that only a quarter of mass shooters have a diagnosed illness. However, many Americans choose to ignore this information or are ignorant of it because saying that the culprit is mental health is easy, and it launches discussion. People begin to ask questions that on the surface have easy answers. If shooters received treatment earlier, before they kill people, could all shootings would go away? However, the reality is that identifying a person has a mental can be next to impossible. 

Often times, people do not realize that they have a mental illness, because general symptoms of common mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, are not widely known by people outside of the health care field, and some are easily brushed off. Many people with anxiety and depression have issues sleeping and are usually tired. However, most people every day complain about being sleepy, yet they don’t have a mental illness. The signs and symptoms that are easily diagnosed as mental illness are hard to see because they exist only in a person’s mind, such as constant worrying, a sense of guilt, and thoughts of suicide. These cannot be seen or heard unless the sufferer speaks them aloud, which they rarely do because of the stigma around mental health that has persisted for decades or more. Even today, many people still believe that talking about any issues or challenges that they face is incorrect. People who struggle with depression and anxiety are seen as unhappy, or ungrateful, or they are over-reacting. They are told to lighten up and get over it, because “it’s not that big a deal.” Some hold the impression that those who are mentally ill are overexaggerating and that they just need a healthy dose of reality and tough love.

This is only a step up from being called “crazy” or “insane” as the mentally ill have been for much of history. This stems mainly from a lack of knowledge and compassion for those who are suffering. While there are forms of mental illness that require more care and treatment than others no one deserves to be shoved into a box that is stamped with nothing more than the name of a disease that they have. 

Every shooter is labeled; as a loner, a victim of bullying, or a victim of trauma and abuse. This has falsely led some people to believe that only those who grew up in unstable situations and have familial issues have mental illnesses, and believe that since they themselves were loved by their family and now love their own children that mental illness will not apply to them. This is not true. Anybody can have a mental illness regardless of race, economic standing, or personal history. 

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were the two teenagers who killed 13 people and wounded 23 at their high school in Columbine, Colorado. People have labeled them for two decades now as loners. Yet, the pair were best friends, as shown by their killing spree being committed together. Furthermore, both boys came from loving and intact marriages. There is no proof of either of them being abused. These boys got good grades. They had friends. Nothing external pushed them to commit the atrocity for which they are famous. It was their own minds, insecurities, and diseases that caused the massacre. 

Especially in the general Christian community, talking about mental health can be hard. People sometimes assume that depression or anxiety stems from a lack of faith in God or that it has something to do with a demonic presence inside the sufferer. The traditional Biblical cannon does teach and imply that those who suffer from mental illness are inhabited by a demon, one that must be exorcised out. People point to the descriptions of those Jesus healed of demons being very similar to those who have a mental illness. In Mark chapter five, the man who called himself Legion cut himself with stones, similar to how those with depression cut their wrists. While this notion is extreme and few people may hold to it, it does make its influence known even now in modern circles. Christians might say to a mentally ill friend, “We need to pray that demon out” or to “lay their troubles on God.” 

Is this view helpful? On the one hand, it places the burden and blame of the mental illness off the sufferer. It can now be blamed on something else, something that has nothing to do with them. When they question themselves or their beliefs, they can rest easy knowing it isn’t really them having those thoughts. It means that all they have to do is pray. They do not have to spend money on medication or therapy, which can often be very pricey and uncomfortable. 

On the other hand, how can the idea of having a demon inside a them help a person. No matter what they do or what they try, they will never be able to change or evict the demon. It will always be there. Does that make them not a Christian then? What about those who are healed from medication or therapy? Does a demon still exist inside them? What people who are mentally ill need is not empty words or prayer that a demon that may or may not exist will leave them, it is support. Prayers for strength and determination. Being willing to answer phone calls or text messages at odd times, and willing to be a great friend. Not judging them or asking lots of questions, but by saying “I am here for you, no matter what”.

Danielle Drawhorn is a Sophomore Writing Major at HBU. She enjoys knitting in crazy colors and daydreaming about books.

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