On the morning of Oct. 1, Christopher Harper-Mercer shot his writing professor at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. before herding students into the center of the classroom and opening fire. According to Everytown Gun Safety, the killings in Roseburg mark the 142nd school shooting since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Harper-Mercer’s crime left nine individuals wounded and 10 dead, including the shooter himself.
The conversation in the wake of Roseburg has not been heartening. In many ways, it seems as though America has experienced so many of these horrific tragedies that the discourse afterwards amounts to little more than a script, a set itinerary of outrage, and blame composed of certain agreed upon topics, and emotions. In truth, there is no rational way to respond to something this disturbing. People cannot be asked to make sense of something so terrible, and yet, as we mourn those so ruthlessly slain, we are forced to do just that.
As is the case with most shootings like that committed by Harper-Mercer, the discussion seems to ping-pong here between the topics of mental illness, and gun control. Some (myself included) are certain that with stricter gun regulation, we might avoid these sorts of tragedies. After all, we are the only developed nation that must still contend with mass shootings on such a regular basis. Others, though, have decided that the issue lies with the killer’s mental health. The evil committed is so superficially irrational that they have decided that no rational mind, with access to guns or not, could have conceived of this atrocity. People cannot understand how the horrifying idea to do such harm might have been conceived, and so, as is increasing practice, it is defined as mental illness. In America, all horrors are the purview of the mentally ill.
I am not looking to settle the conversation on guns or to provide an ironclad explanation for what happened in Oregon on the first. As much as I have been haunted by the cruelty of Harper-Mercer’s actions, I have been equally haunted by the conversation that they have birthed: the cavalier deployment of mental illness as some catch-all for that which seems too terrible to attribute to the “sane.” As someone who suffers from a number of mental illnesses, I find myself in escalating pain as I see this discussion played out on news sites and late night comedy shows. Even when I hear others cooly explain why it is so wrongheaded to attribute Harper-Mercer’s crime to questions of mental health, I still feel something curl up inside of me. I feel the same whimper of shame I experience when I realize that I forgot to hide my medications before inviting someone to hang out in my room. I feel that same numbing fear I get when I realize that my mania or depression is not invisible to those around me, and that one person, or many might just have figured out that something is not all right about Michael today.
From a political perspective, I believe that the use of the topic of mental illness is a diversion from a serious conversation about firearm legislation rather than a sincere inquiry into what it’s like to live mentally ill in America. Setting that aside, however, I want to take those who have so readily cited mental illness over the past week at their word. Let’s do the hard work of talking about mental health.
I have known that I had issues with my moods since I was 13, even though I was not formally diagnosed in any way until I was 16. In middle school and high school, I would not experience time in hours, or days, or weeks, but in feeling, which would flood me until I felt as though helium had been pumped into each of my veins, like something had suddenly inflated inside me, and would soon tear through my skin revealing someone new, and perfect. I would spend days at a time scanning the halls, certain that I had the power to get inside people’s heads, that I could speed around the world like a bolt of energy, and that I needn’t sleep, or eat. I would feel beautiful and ferocious. And then the feeling would leave, all at once, just as it had come. It felt like having blood drawn at hyper-speed–like I had suddenly been drained of everything–and left a husk meant to pay indefinitely for getting so close to the sun. I found myself unable to connect to those around me, or feel the things I knew I was supposed to feel. I felt limp, and ugly, sick, and grotesque, riddled with some degenerative plague that I could feel seeping into my blood. Nothing in the world excited me, and I had to fight to drag myself out of bed in the morning. Once at school, I could only dream of curling up under my covers again. I thought about killing myself some days because it was too painful to make eye contact with anyone, and others because I was certain that it was my duty to rid the world of the burden I was. Many days, I thought about it only because I thought that maybe in death I would be able to experience some sort of equilibrium.
Over the years, the ways in which I see myself and my illness have changed. Both my disease and I have evolved. I’ve gone through talk therapy, experimented with a host of medications, gotten sober, and stopped self-harming. There are days now when I can get out of bed without too much of a struggle, when I can go to class, and interact with those I love, and when I can be useful, and express love and gratitude towards those who express it towards me. Still, even on those days when I feel like I might have a formidable fraction of my life under control, I feel the anxiety of being scrutinized, fearing in some trench of my stomach that everyone around me knows that this is a “good day.” I find myself hating that I need three handfuls of pills to be able to hope for some sort of peace, and that everyone around me believes that, without the pills, I’d be a breeding ground for something thoughtless, and inhuman. Even when the wheels are turning as I want them to, I can’t help but feel broken.
I do not say any of this to seek pity. Pity does nobody any good. I simply say this because if we do want to really talk about mental illness, we need to understand what it means.
Perhaps the scariest way in which we discuss mental illness in the wake of mass violence is how closely the fearmongering deployed mirrors the way people struggling with these disorders think about themselves. Everyone who struggles with depression or anxiety or a mood disorder on some level fears that there is something cruel and poisonous inside them, and that something abnormal and repulsive compels them to feel the way they do. Tying acts of violence like Harper-Mercer’s to mental illness invokes that very same monster. It suggests that on some level, all of us who suffer are perverse little time bombs. It suggests that we only ever have this discussion for the few weeks during which it is timely; simple convenience reinforces this. It paints mental illness as something spectral and hideous that America can only decry and denounce when it rears its head for all to see, and that will soon be forgotten because those who it torments quietly are none of our concern.
This, of course, does not even address how willing we are to equate mental illness with simple hatred. It was recently revealed through Harper-Mercer’s manifesto that he felt snubbed by women with a misogynist rage shared by Elliot Rodger, who killed six in Isla Vista, Calif. in 2014. Mental illness was also our explanation for the horrific racism fueling Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C.. His rage was too raw and hideous for us to contend with, and so we decided that it must simply be insanity.
The end result of all of this is simple: the drawing of a moral diagnosis that simultaneously fails to affect real change in the wake of violence, and causes immense harm to innocents struggling with mental illness nationwide. Because we have no comfortable way to talk about mental illness, and no comfortable way to talk about violence, we simply equate the two. Faced with the forces of hatred and anger that fuel mass murderers, we would rather consider them irrational then have to contend with them as active, present entities in our society. By remanding mass murder to the domain of the mentally ill, we absolve ourselves of responsibility and reinforce our own fear of those in pain. It is no doubt difficult to contend with the most savage elements of ourselves, and our society, but for the sake of the entire country we cannot simply default on honest conversations about how we treat our scapegoats. I am not immune to the strain that comes in the wake of tragedy, or the agony of confronting what really lies at the heart of mass violence. It’s time that we commit ourselves to two mature and separate conversations about gun violence and mental illness, instead of simply using one to obfuscate the other, and allowing the mentally ill to simply remain boogeymen in our heads and incubators for all the evils we deem ourselves too good to indulge.
For my own sake, America, I can no longer be the monster under your bed.
Darer is a member of the Class of 2016.