In a moment of social déjà vu, we hear again about a man in a southern movie theater attacking other moviegoers in midst of a rather feminist film’s screening. Unlike two weeks ago in Louisiana, the attack in Tennessee is non-fatal to its victims and the attacker is killed by responding police who confuse his airsoft gun for a real firearm. Police release the attacker’s face and name to the media. And all too immediately, media outlets such as The Tennessean let us know that Vincente Montano was “homeless, and his mother said he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The woman told police Montano has other health issues and a hard time taking care of himself.” Mental and physical illness is immediately disclosed. While The Tennessean report is careful to avoid laying blame on mental health, they do not provide for much in regards to questioning motives.
While the details of this latest attack are new and strange raising questions about Montano’s methods, the real familiarity of this report is this “history of mental illness” narrative. Following our mass shootings in America perpetrated most often by white males, our media focus looks for motives. However instead of investigating the underlying social problems that incite such atrocious acts we hope instead to look to identifying easier, sensationalist motives. We propagate fear of mental illness quite a bit. Instead of racism, mainstream media talked about Roof’s supposed mental illness. Instead of misogyny, we talked about Houser’s mental illness. Stigmatizing mental illness is America’s knee-jerk reaction to men’s violent acts.
Mental illness alone is not a motive for murder or willfully harming others. This cannot be stressed enough. Even when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence, the “fact” of mental illness crystalizes and takes hold in our cultural imaginations and paranoia. Meanwhile, it is more likely for the mentally ill to suffer violence than to commit violence. However if we were to pretend that the “history of mental illness” narrative were true, does it do us any good as a society? Do the mentally ill benefit from the attention, even if it is negative? Can American society prevent such attacks by being vigilant about mental illness? The answer to each of these is a bitter and resounding no.
If we were to pretend that mental illness alone is the motivating factor in mass violence, these attacks could act as an impetus to finally overhaul and reform mental health care in this country. We’ve heard this one before. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, there were plenty of “what ifs” asked regarding Adam Lanza’s “history of mental illness”, trying to see if there could have been a point of intervention that would have saved lives besides infringing upon the right to bear arms. These questions of intervention bring in problems of privacy and autonomy that ask for an open record of mental health, much more invasive than any attempt on the second amendment could ever be. Yet the attitude of those who pin mass violence upon mental illness use it as a justification to limit the freedoms of the mentally ill. Western civilization, as Michel Foucault suggests, uses the diagnosis of mental illness as a tool for power keeping those who suffer from it at the margins of society, othered and kept at a distance.
Yet, even if we were to put in the effort to diagnose and intervene with “at risk” populations, many of those who are professionally diagnosed with mental illness pose no apparent risk, or at least haven’t acted on it. Philosopher Jennifer Radden identifies that women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses (which alone raises the foiling question, “where are our women mass-shooters?”), while men who suffer often undiagnosed depression are more likely to mask their condition only to lash out in anti-social behavior. I take this to indicate that the problem is mental illness itself, but mental illness’ interaction with our social gender roles. In a society in which men are supposed to be stoic, mental illness ought to be buried more deeply. Taking our problem to be mental illness, we have shifted away into a problem with masculinity itself instead.
Mental illness is a community of strangers. It affects people across all ages, classes, races, and genders. Yet mental illness is only worsened through alienation and separation. If we want to mitigate mental illness and prevent individuals from reaching violent breaking points, then we need to focus on improving other social problems as well. Mental illness has been shown to be significantly worsened among those below the poverty line or racially discriminated.The problem is not mental illness; mental illness and mass-violence instead appear more likely as symptoms of larger problems that the United States would prefer to ignore, only furthering our chances of tragedy.
We may never know truly what Montano’s motives in the Antioch Theater were, but thanks to the reports of his “history of mental illness” we will never shake off the stigmatizing speculation. People are continually dying from mass-violence in this country, and yet all of our speculation on mental illness as its motivation has only further alienated those who suffer from mental illness. Those with mental illness are assumed not to be contributing members of society, but a constant danger. We are not the only nation to have mentally ill citizens, yet the only one to have such large scale violent attacks “without warning”. We need to look further than the easy to stigmatize “history of mental illness” when we investigate mass-violence.