This is a conversation that we’ve been having a lot lately, due to the shootings in Roseburg, but I want to make it clear: It is not only in the context of a mass shooting that I object to journalists describing people as “mentally ill”. In fact, part of the problem is that we only talk about it when we’re discussing something that cannot, under any circumstances, be seen as a sane and rational act. It’s hard to stand here and say that Chris Harper-Mercer should not be described as a mentally ill individual when he did something that seems like it could only have been motivated by suicidal depression combined with a narcissistic demand for attention and a sociopathic disregard for other human lives.
But I can’t say for sure that was the cause. I am not a trained mental health professional. What I did in the previous paragraph? It was an armchair layman’s diagnosis using terms I’ve picked up from reading about the field of psychiatry. Understandably, we all do that to some extent; the jargon of psychiatry has increasingly become part of the language of modern life. But I remain a layman, as do the journalists reporting on Umpqua. Diagnosing someone with a mental illness without proper training and without direct interaction with the patient is always a mistake, and reporting that armchair diagnosis as fact is criminally sloppy reporting.
But most journalists are even sloppier than that. I made a guess that the shooter was depressed because he killed himself; I made a guess that he was narcissistic because he wanted to draw massive amounts of attention to his death. I made a guess that he lacked the ability to empathize with others because he chose a method of drawing attention to his death that hurt others without any apparent regard for their suffering. Again, layman’s guesses, not a diagnosis. But most journalists probably made similar guesses, and what was reported? That the shooter was “mentally ill”.
“Mental illness” is as vague a term as “physical illness”, but the latter is never used in modern journalism. No reporter would ever describe someone in a news story as “physically ill”–they would clearly report that the cause of the symptoms was unknown, and promise clear and specific updates as more information was available. They would then update with the opinion of a medical professional who had studied the specific symptoms and treated the patient (and was able to speak on the record regarding the issue), and from that point on they would refer to the person as “suffering from” the specific condition. Chris Harper-Mercer? He’s “mentally ill”, and that’s all there is to it.
That kind of reporting lumps a sociopathic mass murderer in with a compulsive hand-washer, or an agoraphobic. It contributes directly to the social stigma that people who have a variety of mental health conditions have to deal with on top of their health issues–bad enough that they may have clinical depression, now if they talk about their health it sounds like they’re one bad day away from shooting up a college campus. Mental illness is every bit as common as physical illness, and sometimes just as treatable, but we’ve turned it into something to fear rather than something to treat. It has to stop.
Journalists aren’t the only ones to blame, of course. Part of our problem may be that we only discuss our mental health when something’s wrong with us. (If we get a yearly physical check-up with a physician, why not a yearly mental check-up with a psychiatrist?) But as long as journalists persist in the lazy habit of making armchair diagnoses without consulting with professionals–professionals with knowledge of the specific case history involved–and as long as they continue to treat “mental illness” as a blanket term that can be applied to all diseases equally, the problem can never be fixed. I know I’m not saying anything new, here. Many people reading this will probably be rolling their eyes that it took this long for me to write something this obvious. But I have to say it, because every voice helps.