(Mental) Health is a Human Right: A Reflection in the Wake of the Florida School Shooting

Izabella Zant, Master of Public Health Candidate, Columbia University.

Recently, a friend called me scared at 2:00am. His voice was shaky, emotions polarized from drinking. His breath was labored as he manically apologized for being distant, aloof, and argumentative. He had decided to not pick up his depression medication at the local pharmacy resulting in days of physical sickness, headache, and shame. He cried as he told me how afraid he was to be alive without his pills, and afraid he would never be able to be “normal,” whatever that may mean. He was scared to pick up his prescription, scared someone would know he was struggling. In a world which equates mental illness with irregularity, difference, crime, and hate, how could he not be afraid? This is stigma in action.

Stigma is the discrediting of one’s behavior, identity, or status grounded in stereotypes, and negatively labeling someone as different from the norm. Yet, one in five Americans will experience a mental health issue in his or her lifetime, and 9.8 million Americans currently live with mental illness. Although these statistics emphasize a common narrative, mental illness is often depicted adversely through media. A study tracking media coverage of mental illness for twenty years found stories frequently focused on violence, a topic we see pervasively today. Yet, only 3 -5 percent of violent crimes are attributed to individuals suffering from mental illness. Compared to the general population, those with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of violence.

“One person, with violent and insane voices in his head, managed to… shoot people.”
– Jimmy Kimmel

So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior.”
– Donald Trump

Violent. Insane. Deranged. This is the lexicon we employ exceedingly often to label criminals, exemplified in the wake of the recent Florida school shooting, Las Vegas shooting, the terrorist attack in New York, the Wal-Mart shooting in Colorado, the Texas mass shooting, among other national tragedies. Media and our leaders are using such vocabulary to describe these deleterious acts, yet in the process of grieving we are ignoring a systemic issue. Not all criminals have mental illness. Not all those struggling with mental illness are criminals. We must recognize this faulty, unethical correlation, which historically has led to wrongful institutionalization and imprisonment of the mentally ill. We must recognize how our word selection perpetuates mental illness stigma in the face of individual entitlements.

We often hear activists crying avidly, “Health is a Human Right!” to which I passionately reply, HELL YES. I previously chanted along, adding a silent “mental” in my head, but my silent cry has transformed to deliberate action. If we are to chant and follow this model, we must believe in and restore the dignity of all persons, including those with mental illness. My friend has a right to pick up his medications without distress. A recovering alcoholic has a right to attend group therapy. A parent has a right to hospitalize his child suffering from suicidal ideation without judgement from his community. These people are not “deranged,” and more importantly, they are not criminals. I speak not as a voice for them, but adding my voice as a young woman who has struggled with mental illness myself.

My father once told me, “It is not what you say, it is how you make people feel.” While tragedy may push us to our limits in an effort to understand how the behavior of a few can affect many, we must acknowledge the impact of our words. Mental health is a problem, not because of criminal association, but in spite of it. We exacerbate this conflation by refusing to acknowledge the related stigma and continuing to allow the promotion of damaging, hurtful labels.  An evil act does not make someone ill; an illness does not make someone evil. I hope every individual takes the opportunity to educate those who incorrectly use labels like “insane” or “deranged,” both in general and in the context of the violence surrounding us today. Although there are many organizations and movements to join to create mental health awareness, all I ask of you today is to simply change your words.

Let us continue to speak out against preventable violence. Let us continue to cry out for our rights. We need to show all those struggling with mental illness they are not alone at this time of confusion, labeling, and dehumanization. Let us add to our mantra, without silence, “Mental-health is a human right.”