Mental Illness Does Not Cause Racism, Society’s Ills

National commentary about the mass shooting in El Paso has focused on gun control, racism and xenophobia, social media, and mental illness. While all of these factors are important in our society and need rigorous debate, the issue of mental health is often misunderstood. 

I do not know the history of the person who committed this unbelievably abhorrent act, but the default response that someone must explain this type of behavior as mental illness is disingenuous. 

Some people often use mental illness as a scapegoat for many of society’s problems. One of the reasons that some people easily accept this is because the concept of mental illness is a subjective one. The supposed authority on mental illness (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”) has undergone several revisions and has changed the categories and criteria of mental illness diagnoses based on research and societal norms.

In addition to the underlying subjective nature of mental illness, an overuse of the term leads some to attribute all behaviors that we find undesirable or abhorrent to mental illness. Simply put, racism, ignorance, and cruelty are not mental illnesses. While a lack of empathy can be a symptom of mental illness (e.g., antisocial personality disorder), it cannot explain away free will or goal directed behaviors.

There are debates amongst mental health professionals about the proper use of mental illness labels. Whereas these debates primarily focus on the effects these labels have on individuals who receive mental health services, the larger impact of these labels can shift focus away from individual responsibility and towards perceived helplessness.

As a city, we are suffering and trying to find answers to explain our pain. As we move through this process together, we can take comfort in the fact that while our community has mental illness issues like other communities, we have chosen to interact with each other and treat others with a level of respect and care that is admirable.

The idea that we cannot readily explain the type of extreme violence that occurred recently should not make us feel helpless; it should empower us to make changes in our society and exert our voice. We should demand what is acceptable and what is not. Racism, ignorance and cruelty exist to the degree that societal norms allow. While they always will exist to some degree, society – which by definition is us – has the ability to marginalize them. 

Human behavior is complicated enough without the use of mental illness to define anything we cannot comprehend, relate to, or feel helpless to change. The reasons why people are racist, ignorant, or cruel are not due to some disease that they catch like the flu, rather they often are related to what they have learned is acceptable. Some people facilitate this learning through the negative language used about our community via national media outlets and social media platforms.  

So what exactly do we as citizens of El Paso do? What should we expect of our leaders at the local and national level? What we do as citizens and as a community is refuse to accept the idea that mental illness is the cause of racism, ignorance and cruelty. What we do is demand that our leaders take action to address the racism and the profound ignorance that exists about our border community.

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Paul Carrola, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Educational Psychology and Special Services. He is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor. He coordinates UTEP’s Mental Health Counseling Program. His research interests include correctional counseling, counselor burnout and secondary trauma, and border related mental health issues.

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