What Mentally Ill Looks Like (Because I’m tired of guys with guns deciding)

I had planned on writing about sex this week (you know, like a sex writer) but then my state was hit with a tragedy yesterday. Another shooter, another school, another round of debates as to how people should get to have guns because, rights.

Then it happened, the thing that always happens when folks want to ignore the gun conversation, the racism conversation, the misogyny conversation, hell, whatever conversations we really need to be having and when the shooter is sufficiently light-skinned (because, let’s not bullshit here) – the conversation turned to mental illness.

Suddenly there’s an explanation! Guns are safe you see, it’s just those unsafe mentally ill people that are the problem. Suddenly the term “mentally ill” is being flung around as a slur. Why? Because it’s the bad guy. Mental illness is the scapegoat. Then even the anti-gun people start doing it. Arguments like “Well gun control would keep guns out of the hands of crazy people!” happen. People talk about making registries where we track everyone with a mental illness, like mental illness = dangerous criminal. Pictures of wild-eyed shooters get trotted out (I’m not posting any of them, because fuck those guys) and everyone feels safer because this was an isolated crazy person.

We’ve had 294 isolated “crazy” people so far this year. We’re 275 days into the year.

Now, I’m not going to talk to you about why this is the wrong argument to have because that’s not really my wheelhouse and other people have already done it better than I ever could. What I am going to do is talk to you about the harm these arguments are causing the people around you (yes, YOU).

I had to hide from social media today because it was breaking my heart to see people I like and respect, people who I know like and respect me, flinging around terms like “mentally ill” and “mental illness” as though they are synonymous with “violent”, “out of control”, “dangerous”, “killer”. Here’s the thing: I am mentally ill. I have a mental illness. I’m willing to bet several people you know are too. We have talked before about how the language we use can perpetuate the stigma around mental illness and make it harder for people to ask for the help they need, well this is that times a million.

The last time I visited my parents my mom and I talked about something I had completely forgotten: When I was 20 a doctor tried to diagnose me with depression (this was 5 years before I started being treated) and we all freaked out and left his office pissed off. Why? Because we were outraged that he would suggest there was something mentally wrong with me– I wasn’t crazy! See, the stigma got me too. People avoid the treatment they need because of what the world tells them the diagnosis means and every time you casually refer to a murderer as “crazy” or say “mental illness” like it explains horrific violence you are reinforcing that impulse.

I’ve watched this happen too many times now and I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m tired. I’m tired of letting dudes with guns shape the image of mental illness, I’m tired of hearing something that so many of us deal with on a daily basis talked about like it makes us horrible, scary, dangerous people, I’m tired of people not getting the support they need because they are afraid of being seen as “crazy”, I’m tired of people thinking that mental illness looks like wild-eyed murderers.

So, today I’m here to show you another face of “mentally ill”. I want to leave you with some images of a mentally ill person that have nothing to do with guns, violence or murder and so maybe, just maybe the next time you want to explain away violence by blaming it on mental illness you’ll think twice. Mentally ill people look like me, they look like you, they look like your friends and family. There’s no template for what mental illness looks like or for what kind of person it affects.

I am JoEllen Notte. I live with depression and anxiety. I am what mentally ill looks like.

Get my book The Monster Under The Bed: Sex, Depression, and the Conversations we Aren't Having!

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