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Ben Waxman: Trump Blaming Mass Shootings on Mental Illness is Dangerous and Wrong

Last week, Donald Trump responded to the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by saying that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” Trump’s rhetoric around mental illness is just as outrageous and dangerous as his attacks on other marginalized groups. It encourages discrimination against millions of people, including me.

I know all about the stigma attached to mental illness — I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 20. It’s a serious medical condition that is characterized by periods of deep depression and unusually elevated moods. If untreated, it can lead to episodes of mania. It impacts roughly 3 percent of the adult population. There is no cure.

I have never publicly talked about my diagnosis.

Many who know me may find the revelation something of a surprise. After all, my life seems stable from the outside. I’m married to an amazing woman. I’ve held a number of high-profile and high-pressure jobs in journalism, politics, and government. I even helped a little-known civil rights lawyer become one of the most famous progressive prosecutors in the nation.

That’s what most people see from the outside. But the reality is that I have to think about my disability every single day. And I’m one of the lucky ones — I’ve been able to mostly manage my illness through a combination of medication, therapy, and getting enough sleep. My own social and economic privilege has given me access to quality healthcare for most of my life, which is not always true for many people dealing with behavioral health issues.

In the past, I have been filled with anxiety that people will find out my “secret” and judge me for my illness. I’ve kept this internal struggle to myself and a small circle of close family and friends. But no longer. The casual way that Trump linked recent mass shootings with behavioral health issues made me feel like I had to find my own voice and speak out.

I am not downplaying the role that mental health disorders may have played in some horrific acts of mass shooters. There have been times in my own life where my illness caused me to behave in ways that were deeply painful to others. But the reality is that people with mental health problems are much more likely to be targets of crime or violence than perpetrators. That’s especially true for people who have behavioral health issues and also face other types of oppression, like racism or homophobia.

So what’s behind Trump’s attempt to blame mental illness as the primary reason for the shootings?

First, it allows him to deflect blame from himself. There’s been a huge increase in violence linked to white nationalists since Trump took office. A major part of the reason is that the president has constantly engaged in racist dog whistles, showing implicit support for such violence. For example, social media ads paid for by his reelection campaign constantly warned of an “invasion” from Mexico, rhetoric copied by the El Paso shooter in his hate-filled manifesto posted online. Blaming mental illness is a tactic to distract from Trump’s own role in fanning the flames of hate.

Trump also wants to avoid having a real discussion about the proliferation of assault weapons in our country. He knows that the National Rife Association will never support meaningful gun safety legislation, reform that might actually save lives. Instead, he blames people with mental illness for the murderous rampage enabled by a weapon that allowed the shooter in Dayton to fire 41 shots in 30 seconds, killing nine people. Again, this is a familiar script for our president. He attacks marginalized people as a way to distract from the real issues and protect his powerful supporters.

Trump’s rhetoric slandering people with behavioral health issues is both counterproductive and destructive. His blame game only encourages more people to hide their illnesses and not seek the treatment they need. It’s discriminatory, stigmatizing, and completely unacceptable. It’s also part of Trump’s endless right-wing attacks on women, immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and everyone else who doesn’t fit into Donald Trump’s narrow vision of what it means to be an American.

By now, we should all know Trump’s game plan. He tries to divide people as much as possible and then uses those divisions to weaken opposition to his political agenda. His attack on people with mental health issues is clearly a part of this strategy. The only way to defeat his plan is for marginalized people of all backgrounds to stand together and fight back.

Our survival depends on it.

This article written by Ben Waxman, a progressive activist in Philadelphia, who most recently served as the spokesperson for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, was first published by Philadelphia Magazine. Read the original article here

9 Responses

  1. For a liberal to blame the President for dividing people shows just how out of touch they are. The liberal playbook for the last fifteen years is divide people by race, religion, gender, etc…, turn them against one another, and get votes. Look in the mirror Ben.

    1. Exactly. But of course liberals think someone like Joe Biden, who told black people that Romney was “gonna put y’all back in chains” isn’t divisive at all…

    2. Umm… that’s exactly the opposite. Liberals have been trying to get equal rights for minorities, and have diverse workplaces and candidates to UNITE people of all races, religions and gender for the common good.

      It’s the conservatives who have been trying to deny rights to minorities, and try to blame them for problems, to garner white male votes.

      1. Exactly. Remember when they said that Obama was going to confiscate all of the guns? Never said that, never passed anything, never intended to do anything except provide background checks.

        When James Carville said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between, now I know what he meant. Always thought that was wrong, but he was actually right on with his analysis.

  2. Wait. But doesn’t he and many Dems want to ban guns for people that have mental illness flags?

    1. Where in the article did he advocate for banning guns? People with mental illnesses are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than to commit them. Red flag/extreme risk protection orders don’t “ban guns for people that have mental illness flags”. They protect people’s due process rights while helping to prevent them from harming themselves or others by *temporarily* restricting their access to firearms, and there is a clear process to get your guns back.

      Ben is clearly calling for some nuance in this discussion and for mental illness not to be used as a convenient excuse to hide behind not taking real action.

      Plenty of these shooters aren’t mentally ill, they are motivated by extreme ideology. Two-thirds of the terrorist attacks in the US in 2017 were carried out by far-right extremists. Zero of the terrorist attacks in the US since 1970 were by individuals from any of the Muslim ban countries. Trump is focusing on red herrings instead of real problems and real solutions.

      1. One could argue that killing random people you don’t know because of an “extreme ideology” is a form of mental illness.

    2. We need as a society to come together across party lines and make sensible changes to our gun laws and protect our children and citizens from future mass tragedies. We all know something is wrong with these tragic stories of mass loss of lives due to someone bursting in a college class and shooting or an elementary or middle school or a shopping center. We can get this done and we can protect our hunters because all who were raised in Pa knows from day one that protecting hunting rights is a positive. But there are way too many stories of mass gun violence to sit around and do nothing and bemoan mental illness and say nothing can be done. We can do better as a society and make sensible changes to our gun laws and in the process be fair to all.

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