Mental Illness and the Charleston Shooting

I’m hesitant to speak about the Charleston shooting, but I’m also aware that I can’t be silent about the issue, either.

First off, I want to pay my respects to the people who lost their lives at the shooting. There is no excuse for this kind of tragedy, no reason why this kind of thing should occur.

There are too many things I don’t know about the shooting, and I am not going to speak about things that I don’t know. There is, however, one angle I want to approach this issue from, and that angle is that of the link between mental illness and violence, or Roof and those trying to label him as having a mental illness.

First off, I want to say the obvious but often ignored fact: Those with mental illness are more likely to be victims of abuse and crime rather than commit atrocious crimes such as the one in Charleston. This gets bypassed by the media because it would seem to many people that an average mentally ill person is really a violent psychopath just waiting to go on a killing spree. This is simply not true. The mentally ill include many people, such as schizophrenics, who either commit suicide, hurt themselves, or accidentally hurt or kill themselves due to their symptoms.

I want to comment on something that I think is especially dangerous with trying to link Roof to mental illness: It is unbelievably dangerous to link a mentally ill person to an unbelievable act of terror such as the one in Charleston. Why is it so dangerous? Well, one reason is because the link between violence and mental illness is a strong one in the consciousness of the modern mind, but it is also a highly misunderstood one. Tragic incidents do happen, the mentally ill are capable of committing atrocious acts as anyone else is, but the danger is that we use mental illness as an excuse for a person’s behavior. That is where the danger is.

This is specifically dangerous because if we use mental illness to justify terrible acts of terrorism, we are not only misunderstanding mental illness, but we are also (and this is the more scary part) allowing evil to get away from due punishment. The issue is not whether Roof is mentally ill or not, but is the fact that he committed an unspeakable act of terror.

I’ve been paying attention to Roof, and there isn’t any evidence to suggest he has a mental illness. He shows strong racist views, but not mental illness. He shows a lack of remorse for the victims, but not mental illness. If he was mentally ill, I think the signs would be more apparent. He would present with a complex cluster of symptoms, he wouldn’t try to justify his actions by “wanting to start a race war,” and he would not be arrogant and narcissistic, but would show signs of deep psychological struggle and turmoil.

According to the law, if we wanted to label Roof as mentally ill, we would have to ask the question of whether or not he was cognizant of why what he did was wrong. All I’ve heard from Roof is hate and racism. The lack of remorse is especially troublesome, because it shows that he actually doesn’t care about why what he did was wrong. If anything, Roof would qualify as a psychopath, but psychopaths don’t get free passes according to the law, either. And in fact, most psychopaths know that what they did was wrong. So even if Roof was a psychopath, he would not get a free pass.

Why am I speaking about this issue? Because I think there are a lot of problems. One of them is the constant, unbelievable things that have been happening to African Americans and the African American population. I can’t understand the violence surrounding these people.

But in terms of my own understanding, I also want to call attention to the danger of wanting to call Roof a mentally ill person. I’m not questioning the actual diagnosis, were he to be diagnosed (I want to be objective, though I will say it’s highly unlikely he has a mental illness). What I am questioning is the very quick assumption that a person with a mental illness, a person who went out and shot nine innocent people out of hate and racism, should get a free pass because he “might have a mental illness.” This is a dangerous position/stance to take, and it messes up our conscious understanding of mental illness (even more than it already is). Mental illness is not, ever, an excuse to do whatever you want. Mental illness is in fact something that causes you to suffer, and often in very terrible ways (I’m speaking directly from experience). There is a big difference between using mental illness as an excuse to do whatever you want, and mental illness as something that causes a person to suffer, just like diabetes or cancer. I wish the media would stop trying to paint this picture, of justifying violence with mental illness. It’s extremely damaging to those who suffer with mental illness, and at the very least, it presents a problem in terms of our free choice as humans. In short, there is no excuse for Roof’s behavior. Even if he is mentally ill, he will still need to pay the price. Again, that’s what’s at stake here: The mentally ill ALWAYS pay for their actions, and they do not get it easier just because they have a diagnosis. In fact, I would argue that those who are truly mentally ill have it harder, simply because being treated for a mental condition is hell in its own right. And in all honesty, if Roof wants to plead insane, he’s going to have a tough road ahead of him, one that will certainly not be easier, by any means. Or he could own up to his actions and get the death penalty, as some people have suggested.


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