"Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all." -Bill Clinton
Mass shootings appear to be in the news nearly all of the time these days. Last month, a man entered the Emanuel AME church and opened fire on a Bible study group, killing nine people and sparking off a series of discussions on racially motivated violence. Earlier this month, mass shootings occurred in both Louisiana and Tennessee. In response to these events, people often blame firearms for either being too readily available or not available enough to stop these individuals. However, the real issue behind these events is often far more complicated. Though initial details are still sketchy, many reports suggest that the shooters in Louisiana and Tennessee both suffered from depression. There is also considerable speculation that the Tennessee shooter had been motivated by radical religious beliefs of martyrdom. All of this raises the question: Is there a connection between mental health and radicalization?
First of all, what is depression? Well it isn't just a fancy word for feeling "bummed out." The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders lists long-term symptoms such as decreased interests in daily activities, impaired social function, and feelings of guilt of worthlessness. There are many different types of depression and it can be brought on by any number of causes (both situational and because of chemical imbalances in the brain). It is estimated that nearly 40 million Americans suffer from some form of depression or anxiety (often undiagnosed). Treatments range from personal therapy to drugs which seek to re-stabilize the chemical balance within the brain.
So these shooters were potentially suffering from depression. How likely is it that they turned to radical extremism because of this? Most modern theories on terrorism and extremist ideologies do not attribute mental illness as a significant factor for adopting these beliefs. Though it can play a part in a person's motivation to commit violent crimes, it is more often the violent act that brings about mental illness (not the other way around). Instead, sociologists often link radicalization to isolated or alienated people with narcissistic personalities (though there is significant debate on this).
In both Tennessee and Louisiana, the shooters seemed to have some history of mental illness. The Aurora theater shooting is yet another example of a person with potential mental illness engaging in mass violence. However, these cases seem to be the exception rather than the rule. We certainly cannot make a reasonable case that people engaged in mass killings are completely sane, but blaming their heinous acts on a legitimate (and so often misunderstood) mental condition is often not entirely accurate. Individuals suffering from mental health conditions are often searching for meaning or validation in their lives. They can withdraw from social life as a coping mechanism, while others latch on to ideologies or support groups to help bury their feelings. Depression and other mental illnesses often cause extreme self-hatred or feelings of worthlessness. While it is possible that low self esteem and indifference to the world can cause individuals with severe depression to channel their sadness and negative emotions outward, most people suffering from depression take their feelings out on themselves. Rather than lash out at other people they instead lash out at themselves.
This isn't to say that there aren't some cases where people with mental illness adopt radical beliefs. In those cases, radical Islam is just one of many things these people could turn to. Some choose this, others choose racist ideologies, others just lash out at any target they see as responsible for their bad feelings through indiscriminate violence. In the case of the Tennessee shooter, his upbringing may have made him more prone to choose radical Islam over other ideologies, but the same can be said about the South Carolina shooter and his upbringing. Islam itself isn't necessarily more inherently violent than other ideologies, the radical voices just seem louder.
If it turns out that ISIS and its warped interpretation of Islam are partially to blame for the Tennessee shooting, this tells us about the terror tactics they are attempting to use. Al-Qaeda's tactics typically involved elaborate and theatrical schemes designed to shock people. While effective (when executed successfully) at generating fear, they are often very difficult to pull off due to their complex nature (it's hard to hide bomb making equipment from the FBI). ISIS, on the other hand, has taken a much different approach to terror. They issue calls to all potential supporters to commit acts of violence wherever they have an opportunity (though very few attacks have been directly tied to this). Sadly, one of the most effective and inexpensive methods of causing terror is to simply find a firearm and begin shooting up a public area. This is extremely difficult to prevent and predict since a large majority of American citizens have access to these weapons and they can often be carried into a variety of public places (and neither banning guns or giving everyone access to weapons will solve this problem). Using "lone wolf" gunmen may unfortunately prove more effective than other methods of terrorism since it is hard to predict and yet still effective in generating fear and making headlines. It also has the added effect of continuing to fuel the seemingly unending debate about gun control in America.
In all, people commit violent acts and turn to radical ideologies and groups for a wide variety of reasons (some are completely normal and sane minus the whole wanting to kill people part). Though mental illness may not play as big of a role as most people think, it is still a significant problem which needs to be addressed. Even though the link between mental illness and radicalization is weak, comprehensive and supportive mental health care will do far more to address the root of this problem than banning weapons or giving everyone a gun. This certainly won't solve the issue or stop all mass shootings, but if it prevents even one act of mass violence, it will have been worth it.
Fortunately, mental health awareness is finally starting to gain meaningful recognition in popular culture (though conditions such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis are still heavily stigmatized). Despite laws preventing insurance discrimination of mental health treatment, insurance companies often find ways to shortchange people on their mental health coverage. Until we treat mental health problems like we do physical health problems, millions will continue to suffer with untreated or undiagnosed conditions. Depression isn't just a matter of "stop being sad and be happy instead." And you can't just "get over" mental health problems by ignoring them in the hopes they go away. Real progress and healing requires real solutions.
TL;DR: Depression and mental illness doesn't contribute to radicalization nearly as much as it seems, but these are still serious problems which need to be address by the American public.
*I have refrained from using the names or images of any of the convicted shooters in this article. This is a deliberate attempt to not give them any of the recognition or acknowledgement they desire.*