On Thursday night, Lady Gaga was honored at SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Patron of the Artists Awards. Known for being outspoken about mental health, it was no surprise the speech she gave at the event covered her own experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rising suicide rates and the need to bring mental health issues out of the dark.
A little more unexpected — she also mentioned the recent shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, which took 12 lives Wednesday night.
“Just last night there was a shooting in Thousand Oaks by a veteran who was believed to have suffered from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder which is a mental issue,” she said. “We know that this is dangerous and we know that its important and we have to pay attention to it. We lost 13 people last night, one of them being the killer himself.”
Mental health advocates are often afraid to talk about mental health in the aftermath of a shooting. In fact, most actively push the conversation away from mental health and mental illness entirely, correctly proclaiming that mental illness does not make someone violent — and that saying the shooter was simply “mentally ill” (or as Trump called him on Friday “a very sick puppy“) stigmatizes everyone who lives with a mental illness.
I have PTSD along with millions of others.
I'm not violent, in reality I avoid conflict because of my anxiety.
The actions of one man doesn't represent an entire population.
— Red T Raccoon (@RedTRaccoon) November 8, 2018
LOTS of people suffer from PTSD.
PTSD does NOT lead to committing mass shootings.
People living with PTSD are more likely to harm themselves than others.
STOP SPREADING EXCUSES FOR WHITE MASS SHOOTERS:
you’re increasing stigma for those at risk.
Call 1-800-273-8255 for support.
— Leah McElrath (@leahmcelrath) November 8, 2018
This pushback makes sense, and is needed. Often, those who don’t want to talk about gun control use mental illness as a scapegoat after a mass shooting, despite the fact profiling people based on their mental illness diagnosis does little to prevent violence. Mental illness is also a less reliable predictive factor of violence compared to things like a history of violent victimization early in life, substance abuse and exposure to violence.
After the shooting in Thousand Oaks at the Borderline Bar & Grill, the conversation split predictively. Like Gaga, I found myself wondering about this man. Wondering about his experiences as someone who served in the military. Wondering if, along with limiting his access to guns, there was some support he and his family needed in the form of mental health care, and didn’t receive.
Can we talk about this, I wonder, while still talking about gun control, and without stigmatizing those who live with PTSD who would never hurt a fly?
More is coming out about the shooter. We know he used a high-capacity magazine that is currently illegal to buy, but not to possess, in the state of California. There are reports that he was “disturbed” and “troubled” before he joined the military as well as a sexual assault allegation from when he was in high school. BuzzFeed News reported that the shooter said he had “no motives” on Instagram, and hoped people called him “insane.”
According to The New York Times, mental health specialists talked to the gunman earlier this year after a “reported disturbance.” The specialist determined he was not an immediate danger to himself or others, so he was not hospitalized. He lived with his mother, and her neighbor told CNN that “she didn’t know what to do because he wouldn’t get help.”
People with PTSD are overwhelmingly not violent, but PTSD and being a veteran are part of this man’s story. This doesn’t mean the shooter deserves our sympathy. Nor does it mean he represents a typical person with PTSD or that he should have been thrown in a hospital. At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore this history. It should be a part of the conversation.
If we don’t want the conversation to be stigmatizing, as is often the case when mental health and guns come into dialogue, we need mental health advocates and people with lived experience to lead the charge. Otherwise, it’s full of generalizations. It becomes about the “mentally ill” and gun bans and more institutions instead of solutions the mental health community actually stands behind.
I talked to Rob, a veteran and crisis intervention specialist who works at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line. He wished to remain anonymous for this piece. He told me PTSD is an overused acronym for veterans who are struggling. Less known, but very real, is something called “moral injury,”
Moral injury refers to “the damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when [a] person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress their own moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.” According to The Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University, treating PTSD doesn’t necessarily “treat” moral injury, and consequences of moral injury include serious distress, depression and suicidality.
Rob said in the nine years he’s worked at the crisis line, he actually hears more people talking about their “moral injury” than talking about PTSD. He also knows that while the Veteran’s Administration has a lot to improve on, it can also be hard to encourage veterans to use the mental health services available. Even more, it can be hard to convince them to stick with mental health services when they don’t get “better” right away. He said:
You know as well as I do that we cannot make the veteran accept our help or do the work. In the military there is a warrior culture that precludes asking for help. Asking for help, especially in regards to mental health, is looked upon negatively by many, akin to being weak… it’s difficult to extinguish the stigma of asking for help.
Samantha Malone also knows how hard it can be when a loved one doesn’t accept help. Her husband came back from Afghanistan in 2012. He’s a combat vet, and Malone said when he got back, she knew nothing about PTSD. Her husband turned to drinking, and she only found out when she caught him hiding a bottle around the house. Malone, her husband and other military wives want people to know that what happened in Thousand Oaks was not representative of their personal experience loving someone who has PTSD.
“To paint [my husband] or anyone else with PTSD as someone who is just violent or enraged is totally incorrect,” she said. “I have seen my husband have wonderful amazing days, and I have seen him have horrible days when he is yelling about everything. I’ve never felt fear for my life, at all, or that he would hurt me or our kids, just a lot of rage.”
Malone also lives with a genetic disorder and shared some perspective from her own experience. Just because someone out there has the same genetic disorder as she does, she said, doesn’t mean they have the same genes. With PTSD, it’s similar — no two people who experience it are the same. It’s possible to talk about this man’s trauma and PTSD without talking about all veterans who have PTSD.
“This guy in Thousand Oaks, I’m upset because people lost their lives, I am angry, ” she said. “But my heart goes out to him because I’m wondering, ‘What was going through his mind?’ How could this have been stopped? How could we have saved his life, and all those other people if we had just stopped and took him in and helped him?”
It’s a conversation we can have without “blaming” PTSD, and it’s certainly a conversation that requires more information. As former American Psychological Association president Frank Farley told me after the Parkland shooting, there’s no “mental illness” that explains this kind of action. While a mental illness can be one issue, it’s not the trigger, he said.
“It’s what he did that is so radically beyond the usual world of mental health and mental illness,” Farland said. “He’s in a category by himself.”
PTSD didn’t cause the shooting on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean trauma had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t mean the shooter’s history in the military had nothing to do with it. We can talk about this and the fact that so many acts of domestic terrorism are committed by white men. White men with guns, like we’ve seen again and again.
Gaga’s comment was simple, but it acknowledged something important: That PTSD and mental health might be part of this man’s story. The acknowledgment of the shooter’s mental health doesn’t mean there is a mental health-based solution for mass shootings, but ignoring that part of the shooter’s history doesn’t make it go away. As Gaga said:
We need to bring mental health into the light. We need to share our stories so that global mental health no longer resides and festers in the darkness.