I know and love people who struggle with various forms of mental illness. They are caring and beautiful souls, who just happen to be afflicted with a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sometimes these imbalances are easily kept in check with medications or therapy and sometimes these people fight for years to find a treatment to successfully counter their disease, just as is true for people who battle a whole host of other diseases. Almost without fail, though, my friends and loved ones who battle with mental illness are also confronted by the stigma we so readily attach to it. In that way, mental illness is a cruel two-pronged attack: first a chemical imbalance, followed closely by shame, blame, and misunderstanding.
Whenever we experience a tragedy like the one in Charleston, particularly (only?) when the assailant is a white guy, we immediately hear people making judgments about the shooter’s mental health. “Obviously he was sick,” we say. “Clearly, he’s mentally ill.” “He must have slipped through the mental health cracks,” we posit. Sometimes, particularly from a certain demographic, this alleged early focus on mental illness is an effort to not talk about other issues, like racism or the proliferation of guns. This demographic is easy to pick out of the crowd, because they are the same ones who oppose extending health benefits, mental or otherwise, to people at large. They are also often the same people who declare the shooter was “obviously” mentally ill, but they don’t think we should bolster background checks on weapons.
Sometimes, though, for a lot of us, the assumption of “mental illness” is simply because the events seem so unimaginable that we’re left to assume there must have been some sort of profound defect in the killer’s brain. How else can we explain such unspeakable horror, after all? In the crosshairs of our assumptions, though, are real people who daily struggle with diseases that most of don’t understand. They are people who are, statistically, far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it.
All of our mental health suspicions might well be proven to be true about Dylann Roff as the investigation unfolds and actual mental health professionals — ones with specific knowledge of this case, not paid pundits on cable news — begin to weigh in. But what we actually know right now is that Roff was a racist with deadly racist intentions, independent of any sort of mental illness. We also know that racism is not a mental illness caused by some chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead, the hatred of racism is a learned behavior. It’s something we teach.
The good news — if there ever is good news to be found in the midst of horror — is that we all, each and every one of us, have the power to turn the tide on pervasive and systemic racism in this country. It doesn’t even require an act of Congress to begin the process; it just requires an honest and willing look at the condition of our hearts.
May the families of the Charleston victims find peace in the coming days from whatever soothes their hearts and comforts their souls.