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Christa Santangelo Ph.D.
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Let's Speak the Simple Truth

It’s an act of political and emotional healing.

The frequency of mass shootings in the US is directly related to the absence of reasonable gun laws and other policies which would dramatically reduce the number and type of guns in civilians’ hands. That’s a simple truth. If we complicate this simple truth by blaming the mental health of the shooters, the solution will continue to evade us.

“More often it is the societally-sanctioned sane that are violent”–David Harbour

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Michael Stone conducted one of the largest studies of mass killers finding that only 20 percent had psychotic disorders. The other 80 percent had no diagnosable mental illness. As a practicing psychologist for three decades and a University of California, San Francisco professor I am intimate with the psychological suffering and the need for more resources to address complex mental health problems. I am not dismissing the fact that there may be times when psychiatric issues and shootings should be considered together. Clearly, there are cases like this in the history of mass shootings. But we must stop blurring the line between mass shootings and mental illness, most of the time, once and for all to move more swiftly to solutions for the senseless loss of life.

To correlate mental health problems with mass shootings and ignore the means by which shooters impact the lives and cause death is to lie.

Speaking this truth is a mental health emergency at this time in our country. Speaking the truth is an essential aspect of psychological well being. Lies erode our sense of reality; they distort us at a foundational level. Neuroscience is beginning to connect the hyperarousal of the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for emotional regulation, with lying. Our grandmothers knew that telling the truth feels better; so let’s all feel better and tell the truth.

The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe."–Albert Einstein

Anger, which can be contagious as humans are social creatures, is an aspect of what motivates violent behavior. Many people cannot fathom that killers can be sane. “Most killers are not mentally ill. They are just filled with hate, and well-armed.” The New York Times wrote introducing an Op-Ed (August 8, 2019) by Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist. There are many mental health and economic factors that contribute to disenfranchised white youth fomenting hate and perpetrating violence. These issues are valid and should be addressed. However, they are not the most relevant factors for finding a solution to multiple, sequential mass shootings, most of the time. Anger is not the same as a psychiatric illness in most cases.

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When we conflate mental health with mass shootings we avoid taking a simple step for a solution that can have real consequences to reduce access to guns. Data from countries like South Africa and Austria, where gun violence was drastically reduced when gun laws and restrictions were put in place, are a testament to the sanity of this simple choice.

Speaking the truth.

Tony Morrison in her wisdom about the power of words urged us to take the language back; that’s the process by which you become your own agent.

Political action which will address laws and policies start with clarifying the call. Speak the truth. If we conflate mental health with mass shootings, most of the time, we are complicit in the suffering because we are lying. And our focus will not be on the most relevant factors which result in the deaths and suffering of massive numbers of innocent people. Let’s stay sane by speaking the truth.

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About the Author
Christa Santangelo Ph.D.

Christa Santangelo, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of California at San Francisco.

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