In the wake of last week's massacre at UCSB, people have been arguing about what the tragedy was "really" about. The "#YesAllWomen" campaign blames misogyny. Grieving father Richard Martinez blames guns. I think these answers are both right. But on their own they are not the whole story: Mental illness played an important part too.
I've been troubled by commentators who seem to think that taking gun control and misogyny seriously means dismissing the role of mental illness in this crime. Too many people on twitter claim that discussing mental illness "derails" conversations about guns and misogyny, call the issue a "red herring," or flatly state "It's not about mental illness."
Why are all these important political issues being pitted against against each other? Clearly people who care about making the world safer and better need to care about all of them.
It's remarkable how dismissive and ignorant people can be when it comes to mental illness. As someone who grew up around people with severe mental illness, and who has seen mental health care literally save the lives of people I love, people whose lives I spent years fearing for, people whose health was definitely not helped by all the silence and misinformation and lack of resources around mental health issues, I don't see how calling attention to mental health is some kind of political evasion. As Mac McClelland demonstrates in an important article in Mother Jones, the mental health care crisis is part of the general health care crisis. But unlike cancer or AIDS, mental illness is often not recognized as a legitimate illness, even by politically aware and educated people. Too often it is seen as a personal failing or a purely sociological phenomenon. As a result, many preventable crimes are committed, and more and more sick people end up in the prison-industrial complex.
Obviously mental health care is not a panacea. Elliot Rodger had care and it wasn't enough. That is part of the terror and tragedy of this terrifying crime. But with more awareness and communication about the severity of his illness, the murders might have been prevented.
Paranoid or sociopathic people often latch onto ideological narratives that are already out there: the Unabomber was an anarchist/primitivist; Wade Michael Page was a white supremacist; Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were inspired by Nazism and social Darwinism; Elliot Rodger was a misogynist. But often people with similar psychological issues commit crimes of terror without any discernible ideological intent (Seung-Hui Cho, Isaiah Kalebu). Regardless of their beliefs, paranoid men sometimes find a shape for their delusions in the classic American logic of guns and massacre -- a logic that has frequently been implemented by people in US government-issued uniforms following US government instructions.
That is why I am hesitant about making severely sick people the poster children for widespread social evils, without adequate acknowledgement of the fact that they are severely sick. White supremacy (as Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently documented) does far more damage as something done legally, often through laws themselves, by people who do not have the excuse of insanity. And misogyny, as twitter has recently noted, is omnipresent and everyday and doesn't usually make the news. Millions more women have been violently harmed by sane men than were harmed by this one sick man or all the other mass killers combined.
Ban guns. End the oppression of women. Treat the sick.