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When It Comes to Gun Violence, Mental Health Matters and the Left Should Fight for It

In the aftermath of the recent wave of mass shootings we need a mental health overhaul and it’s the Left that needs to fight for it.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

June 13, 2022
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Three students marching in front of a sign that reads "On Strike for Mental Health supports"
Photo: Ben Hovland/ Sahan Journal

In the aftermath of the horrific Uvalde massacre and the massacre in Buffalo, both committed by 18 year old men —  boys, really — there is a national discussion about how to stop mass shootings. The Democrats have centered their whole discussion on expanding state control of guns by increasing state surveillance via background checks, banning automatic weapons, and a “domestic terrorism” bill which the Republicans have gutted. 

The Republicans, whose blatant white supremacy and misogyny have led directly to these mass shootings, give different solutions. Some want to arm teachers —  the same teachers who could not be trusted to write their own curricula just a few months ago. Some call for better “family values,” higher church attendance, and fewer video games. Some of the most depraved people blame the teacher who they say left the door open (turns out they didn’t). But some Republicans, including Texas Governor Greg Abott and Mitch McConnell, in hopes of shifting attention away from the gun control debate, are talking about the need for mental health services. 

Of course, Abott and McConnell are not in favor of increased mental health services. It’s a cynical ploy to divert attention from systemic problems to individual pathology.  But it’s an expression of the profound weakness of the Left that it has allowed the Republicans to masquerade as caring about mental health. 

In the light of these mass shootings we need a massive mental health overhaul and it’s the Left that needs to fight for it. 

A Mental Health Crisis 

The United States is suffering from a mental health crisis, which is especially blatant among young people. This was true before the pandemic and it is even more true today. More than 1 in 3 high-schoolers say they’ve felt persistent sadness or hopelessness, and roughly 1 in 5 report having seriously considered suicide. The statistics for queer youth are especially chilling: queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. 

During the recent Minneapolis educators’ strike, educators were fighting for more counselors in their schools. Students joined the struggle and organized an occupation in solidarity with the teachers’ demands. They all spoke about the mental health struggles they are their classmates were experiencing. One said: “We’ve had 11 consecutive fights.  A kid brought a gun to school. We need more counselors. Where are they?” A Black student talked about the trauma of seeing George Floyd killed on video in their city. “Black people are killed and we have to go to school and carry on with no help. We need support!”

The kids are not alright. 

And the truth is that there are not enough counselors or mental health services for kids. While the recommended counselor to student ratio is 250 to 1 (which is already too high), the national average of counselor to students is currently 444 to 1.

There is just no way that one counselor can attend to the mental health needs of 444 kids. There is no way that a counselor can build trust and a personal relationship with students with even the recommended ratio.

And the mental health crisis is prevalent among adults as well. Rates of suicide increased by about 30% from 2000 to 2018 and the US has the highest suicide rate of any wealthy country. Anecdotally, one of my friends was recently suicidal; she looked into public mental health and was put on a months-long waiting list. 

Mental health services have been severely defunded, especially in the past decades of neoliberalism that have cut social services and increased policing. Gov. Abbott attributes mass shootings to mental health issues a month after cutting $211 million from the mental health commission. Texas spends $45 per capita on mental health agencies, serving only 1.21% of its population. In Florida, it’s 36 dollars per capita. But this isn’t just a red state issue. The New York state budget cut 200 beds for inpatient mental health treatment last year

The growth of nonprofits has meant public, unionized mental health jobs are going to non union, underpaid workers. Those services then dwindle. It is important that unions fight to keep jobs public as well as unionize nonprofit jobs. One of the demands of the recent SEIU 721 strike authorization was against the privatization of jobs. SEIU must fight to unionize more nonprofits and to keep public jobs public. 

Of course, most people who are going through a mental health crisis don’t go on racist shooting sprees. They don’t talk about sexually assaulting people, as the Texas shooter did. It is essential to note that the people with the most severe mental illness are on the receiving end of violence an overwhelming majority of the time. The police disproportionately murder mentally ill people, especially Black and Brown people. And when Black and Brown people engage in violence, politicians never talk about mental health — instead they are “thugs” or “terrorists.” It seems that only white men get the “benefit” of being called young and troubled. 

But the truth is that there is a lethal combination of a lack of mental health services and a violent, misogynistic, racist and imperialist society that creates mass shooters among men and especially white men. 

Mental Health Means More Than Therapists 

We also need to revolutionize the field of mental health — training counselors and therapists to look not only at the individual, but at the structures that shape and influence those individuals’ behavior. It means seeing that racism, sexism, homo and transphobia are all created and supported by the institutions of the state and the capitalist media, and understanding the way that they get internalized and recreated by individuals. The field of psychology has often been on the side of the oppressors, from seeing queerness as a psychological disorder, to disproportionately locking up people of color. We must revolutionize the field as well.

Even mental health workers today are too often trained to see the problem of individual “brain chemistry,” but it is essential to view the individual in the context of broader society, to help understand how individuals have internalized oppressive systems and that mental health workers must fight against those systems and help their patients understand them. And too often, the current mental health system relies on the repressive police, especially due to underfunding of any alternative. In fact, jails and prisons are ironically the largest providers of mental health services in the United States, with as many as half of all inmates suffering from some sort of psychiatric disorder.

It also means that the field of mental health shouldn’t be a business for profit. It should be public and free and accessible to everyone, and it should be run by the people who know about what is needed– mental health professionals, community members and patients– the people who need and will use these services. 

And further still, the fight for mental health goes far beyond therapists to survive the brutality of the current system. Investing in mental health means paying everyone a living wage and guaranteeing housing and healthcare to everyone. Mental health means making sure everyone has paid time off and a disposable income for vacation. It means not an individualized self care, but a society that puts human needs over profit and guarantees the structures for a quality life for everyone. 

In that sense, individual mental health solutions are not enough– to really stop state and individualized violence we will have to end the structural violence that is inherent to the capitalist system. 

The Fruit of Patriarchal Imperialism

Nothing highlights the monstrous decay of American society more than the fact that with startling frequency, children are gunned down and murdered in schools. We have seen a growth in white supremacist far right organizations, especially those that recruit young white men to their ranks who go on to mass murder. This was certainly the case with Dylan Roof in Charleston and Payton Gendron in Buffalo.

And although not a white supremacist, the Uvalde shooter was certainly influenced by a deeply misogynistic ideogy characteristic of the far right. Before his shooting spree, he said he waited for his grandfather to leave before shooting his grandmother. There is extensive evidence of the connection between mass shootings and misogyny. 

These mass shooters are a product of the patriarchal, imperialist society in which we live. As I wrote in 2018,

“From the genocide of indigenous people to annex the land we now live on to the imperialist wars in the Philippines, Hawaii, Vietnam, Iraq and around the globe, the history of the U.S. is bathed in blood. The carnage in the Middle East continues; three bombs an hour during the last year of the Obama administration. On the ground, soldiers are given a free pass to rape, murder and torture, as the horrific Abu Ghraib photos showed…

In this context, these mass shooters and perpetrators of mass violence are a continuation of U.S. policy carried out by both Democrats and Republicans, by the police, the military and security forces like the CIA. They are the last link in a long chain of state sanctioned violence.” All too often mass shootings are framed as one off occurrences of a sick individual, rather than as morbid symptoms of a sick society. 

Many mass shooters were motivated by the ideologies promoted by Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and the ultra right wing pundits who combine racism, misogyny, xenophobia and imperialism and encourage the kind of violence enacted in Buffallo and Uvalde.  But this is not only a far right issue: racism, misogyny, imperialism and the gutting of social services are bipartisan. 

Democrats Want to Ignore the Mental Health Issue 

The argument that mass shooting has nothing to do with mental health honestly defies logic. Are we really meant to believe that someone whose mental health was excellent — happy, with healthy coping mechanisms, having dealt with past trauma — went on to shoot small children in an elementary school? 

The argument is absurd. 

Partially this comes from an arbitrary and stigmatizing division between “mentally ill” people and everyone else — as if mental health wasn’t a spectrum, and as if people can and do have different mental health needs in different moments. This view of mental health sees mental illness as static, as opposed to an issue that everyone may need help and support with. 

But partly, this is due to the fact that gun control is an easy issue for the Democrats; if they focus on gun control then the “bad guys” are the NRA and the Republicans. If it’s about gun control the solution is easy — it’s not systemic at all. That’s why the Democrats are allowing Republicans to take up the mantle of mental health: because in the end, they don’t want to increase mental health funding. After all, they have been on the front lines of cutting those services throughout the years and would much rather massively increase police funding and military funding than mental health support. 

Where do we go from here? 

We must fight for an immediate and mass investment in free public mental healthcare– a massive influx of counselors in schools, and mental health services available to the whole population. We must immediately tax the rich and defund the repressive institutions of the state — which do nothing to stop mass shootings and engage in violence against people of color and mentally ill people — and create massive public spending in mental and public health. This public health should be controlled by the workers and communities that use those services, not for profit. 

But whenever we talk about physical or mental health, we have to discuss systems. The problem of mass shootings isn’t a problem of broken people. It’s a problem of a broken system — a system that functions to defend a tiny minority making a profit from the overwhelming majority; a system built on the unpaid labor of (overwhelmingly) women, on racism and on imperialist profits. 
We will need unions and other community and activist organizations fighting for these demands; the youth who organized for gun control must take up the struggle for mental health services— which neither the Democrats or Republicans really want.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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