Human Rights

What the Parkland Teens Get Wrong

Some in the mental health community say the conversation about gun safety fails to address critical issues.

Photo Credit: Debate.org

Last week, in the buildup to the nationwide March for Our Lives, which drew more than one million participants nationwide, the Guardian’s U.S. desk yielded to a team of special guest editors to guide their coverage. Student editors from the Eagle Eye, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s official newspaper, used the platform to publish a nine-point manifesto for gun reform in America. The editorial was met with overwhelming praise.

“These kids are unbelievable,” wrote one reader, whose comment was highlighted as a Guardian Pick. “It’s hard to argue with any of their points.”

“We need to start empowering those with sane visions,” another agreed.

That use of “sane” felt like a cruel joke to some mentally ill people and mental health advocates, who read one of the manifesto’s points with horror. Beneath calls for universal background checks and restrictions on high-capacity magazines lay a more controversial and potentially hazardous suggestion: an expansion of police powers over mental health care providers. “We must improve this channel of communication [between law enforcement and health care providers],” wrote the students. “To do so, privacy laws should be amended. That will allow us to prevent people who are a danger to themselves or to others from purchasing firearms.”

It was an extension of a sentiment professed by Parkland youth activist leader David Hogg, son of retired FBI agent Kevin Hogg, who tweeted in February that mentally ill people should not be allowed to own weapons. On this front, the Parkland teens have garnered significant support from lawmakers, especially Republicans. “How do we make sure that individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun?” asked Florida Governor Rick Scott at a press conference the day following the Parkland shooting. Nine days later, Scott released a “Major Action Plan,” which offered a checklist on “Keeping Guns Away from Violent and Dangerous People.” The paper also proposed the creation of a “Violent Threat Restraining Order” that will permit courts to “prohibit a violent or mentally ill person from purchasing or possessing a firearm or any other weapon when either a family member, community welfare expert or law enforcement officer files a sworn request and presents evidence to the court of a threat of violence involving firearms or other weapons.”

Gov. Scott’s plan would require mentally ill individuals to surrender all firearms for 60 days following an involuntary commitment; place mandatory “sworn sheriff’s deputies or police officers” in all public schools; and require schools to assemble “a threat assessment team including a teacher, a local law enforcement officer, a human resource officer, a [Department of Children and Families] employee and [Department of Juvenile Justice] employee, and the principal to meet monthly to review any potential threats to students and staff,” among other proposals.

NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre has endorsed more radical ideas in this vein, calling for “an active national database of the mentally ill” one week after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

Mentally ill Americans have roundly rejected the proposals, calling them misguided, stigmatizing and dangerous, especially for those who are further marginalized by race and/or gender identity. “Giving law enforcement the ability to monitor mentally ill people just for having an illness, be it as simple as panic attacks or as complex as schizophrenia, only serves to increase the likelihood that people like me will be harmed,” says Brandon, who spoke with AlterNet via text message from Arizona. Brandon, who suffers from anxiety and depression, said he fears the myriad ways in which police could abuse this expanded authority. “I’m lucky enough that I’m racially ambiguous, but my [last] name is unmistakably Hispanic, and I’d be worried that law enforcement would prejudge me.”

Brandon’s concerns aren’t unfounded. As many advocates have noted, mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, including in interactions with police. According to the Police Violence Report, black and brown people made up 48 percent of all law enforcement killings in 2017, congruent with the Treatment Advocacy Center’s estimate that “as many as half of all law enforcement homicides ends the life of an individual with severe psychiatric disease” such as schizophrenia. The criminalization of mental illness in America has been tied to racial prejudice since the 1800s, creating a cycle of trauma that continues today. Though Scott’s action plan states that officers who misuse the “Violent Threat Restraining Order” would be subject to “criminal penalties,” it’s anyone’s guess how often those penalties would be enforced; per PVR statistics, only 13 officers nationwide who were involved in a fatal shooting were charged with a crime out of 1,147 total deaths, yet further evidence of the “blue code of silence” that enables police misconduct in America.

“In the city of Chicago alone, our mayor and the city council have closed multiple public mental health facilities,” says Charlene Carruthers, the national director of Black Youth Project 100. “That not only sends a signal that they’re more willing to invest in things like policing and jails, but also…when someone is in crisis, they don’t have many options to turn to.” Carruthers points to incidents like the killings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in Chicago and Deborah Danner in New York City as evidence that law enforcement is ill-equipped to handle mental health crises. “What we need instead are community response teams with trained crisis counselors, people who are trained in mental health issues, social workers, and therapists, not the police,” she told AlterNet by phone.

Those who live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities are also troubled by the proposed broadening of police powers and access. Transgender people, who are at elevated risk of police mistreatment and experience mental health concerns more frequently than the general population, have long criticized Americans’ blase attitude toward the murders of black transgender women and transfeminine people. This vector for gun violence is often erased; after a Las Vegas trans bar became the target of a shooting in February, trans people took to social media to call out the lack of mainstream coverage.

“I don't think [the Eagle Eye editors] know that mental health professionals already have to report potentially dangerous patients to authorities,” says Lindsay Paige, a disabled autistic person living with mental health issues including depression and PTSD. Paige is white, though would still feel less safe if police had access to private medical records. “I agree that more funding [for mental health treatment] is always needed, but singling us out as people likely to commit mass murder or acts of terrorism is just wrong,” Paige says. “They should be watching the young white men who are statistically more likely to commit those acts. I'm not a f**king scapegoat because I don't have perfect mental health.”

Indeed, while serious mental illness is a factor in some mass shootings (between 14.8 and 23 percent, depending on who’s counting), it is frequently and erroneously invoked to defend and humanize the white males who make up more than half of all American mass shooters. After the Las Vegas mass shooting in October 2017, President Trump described shooter Stephen Paddock as "sick” and “demented," although information on Paddock’s mental health history remains uncertain five months later. Data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety indicates that in addition to race and gender, a history of domestic violence is also a more accurate predictor of mass murder—yet there are markedly few proposals for a federally funded registry of domestic abusers.  

Mentally ill people and activists aren’t the only ones concerned. Although an ABC/Washington Post poll conducted in February reported that 77 percent of respondents believed “better mental health monitoring and treatment would have averted” the Parkland shooting, mental health professionals like Vanderbilt University psychiatry professor Jonathan Metzl have strongly dissented. “There is no psychiatric diagnosis whose symptom is shooting someone else or harming someone else,” said Metzl in an appearance on Fox News during last weekend’s march. Assuming mental health monitoring can act as a predictor for violence is “simplistic,” he cautioned. “It's certainly the case that there are complicated histories of many mass shooters, but...a number of factors are in play—anything from gender, race, access to firearms....Narrowing it down just to mental illness is something I think you’re going to get a lot of pushback on from the mental health community.”

Metzl also warned that this sort of dialogue and debate can further stigmatize mental illness, a factor that may have played a major role in the Parkland shooting. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz formerly attended Cross Creek School, an alternative public school for “emotionally/behaviorally disabled” students. But Cruz chafed at the stigma of attending Cross Creek, saying it was “for students that are 'not smart' and that he can now handle being in 'regular' school.” A few months after returning to Stoneman Douglas in 2016, Cruz turned 18 and refused the district’s mental health care, with the support of his mother, who died the following year. If we’re to assume Cruz’s mental health issues contributed to his eventual violence, in tandem with his enthusiasm for white nationalism (an extremist ideology held by the killers of at least 18 people in 2017), it should follow that the stigma of seeking mental health treatment bears culpability as well, stigma that is only perpetuated by the association of mental illness with criminality.

Despite the Parkland teens’ well-intended advocacy for more public mental health funding in their Guardian manifesto, this is one plank many say is misguided. But that shouldn’t be cause for chastisement. Instead, says Carruthers, it’s an opportunity to encourage young, motivated activists to consider the broader implications of their advocacy, and to dream of a better world.

“Imagine what a world would look like if when someone was in the midst of mental health crisis, someone in their community who was trained and committed [could] respond instead of someone with a gun,” Black Youth Project 100's Carruthers says. “What we could do is create jobs for people in our communities, and pay people for the work that they already do to intervene. That’s what it’s really about—investing in communitiesm instead of systems that punish and enact violence against us.”

Neither Gov. Rick Scott nor the Eagle Eye staff had returned requests for comment as of this writing.

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Sam Riedel is a freelance writer and editor in Massachusetts. A former editor at the Mary Sue, her work has appeared in Bitch Magazine, the Establishment, and Publishers Weekly. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.