On Easter Sunday — while most of us were leaving church service, headed to the nearest brunch, or about to devour food at a neighborhood cookout — Steve Stephens took to Facebook Live to tell his friends, followers, and anyone who would listen that he allegedly killed 14 people in Cleveland, Ohio, and was looking for more. It was a pretty sick event that thousands could see happening before their very eyes. He wouldn’t stop his killing spree, Stephens notes on video, unless and until he was contacted by Maggie Green, his mother, and Joy Lane, a former girlfriend of three years and the person Stephens ultimately blamed for his own twisted actions.
It didn’t take long for the internet streets to do two things: first, place blame on Lane, a black woman, for Stephens’ actions and demanding she contact him (some even unnecessarily referring to Sunday as the #JoyLaneMassacre), possibly putting her in harm’s way; and second, automatically deduce his violent rage to experiencing a mental illness.
Both are problematic.
As a native Ohioan, my heart immediately dropped when I saw several Facebook statuses about Sunday’s events. It was clear that Stephen’s claims — that is, the actual killing of multiple people — were unsubstantiated. So, because Stephens explicitly stated that he was frustrated with people not believing him and “not taking [him] for truth,” he decided to take the life of 74-year-old Robert Godwin, Sr., on social media. There is no point of watching that video, as all too often, we see black bodies being annihilated for sport. The point remains that we saw Stephens’ comments go from threats to real world executions — as if the victims were mere characters in a game of Grand Theft Auto — and for the world to see.
Over the last 48 hours, the black community has been grappling with just how to discuss Sunday and its continuing aftermath. On one hand, there are people automatically connecting Stephens’ heinous actions to being mentally ill. On the other hand, there is a series of thoughts that dismiss possible mental health experiences because those actions can be rooted within larger narratives of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy. Both are right, both are wrong; everyone loses, but particularly those who experience mental illnesses.
We know that mental health is not a common conversation in many black households. When discussed, it’s usually dismissed as a problem that requires prayer or an important lesson that God is attempting to teach us. We usually retreat from the idea of mental illness because it’s already stigmatized, and as black people who experience a host of social ills, who wants to add more? So, even while we’re harming ourselves and others in the process of exploring our own mental and social conditioning, we don’t claim an illness because it would simply be too much to bear.
Because we rarely, if ever, see an intentional conversation about mental health in the black community, the discussion of Stephens’ automatically-assumed mental illness made me slightly happy. Then terrified me.
This discussion initially made me smile because at a young age, we’re told that only white people experience mental illness. As mainstream media works its magic in humanizing whites to the detriment of black people, the perception is that illnesses are only possessed by those who don’t look like us; and many black people have continued to suffer in silence.
Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist responsible for killing nine black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., for example, was immediately thought to have a mental illness. In mostly every mass murder enacted by white people — which is most — there is usually a sympathetic response in the form of a perceived, rather than actual, mental illness. In large part, this happens to categorize why a person has committed a heinous offense. Although society won’t do anything to ensure a healthy mind, body, and soul, we sure do find numerous ways to discuss it when it’s too late.
Nonetheless, the “killer must have had a mental illness” is only afforded to white perpetrators, while black and brown people continually have “thug” and “terrorist” attached to their names. That’s part-and-parcel why many are beholden to the idea that what happened with Stephens had to be a result of mental illness. Maybe, maybe not.
What we do know is when racism, sexism, and control are intertwined, it’s hard to believe that mental illness necessitated violence. So, why, then, do so many of us only push being concerned about mental health when we see events like Sunday occur? Mental health has been an issue before Stephens, and it will remain one afterward, so it’s critical we begin having conversations regarding our own health concerns and outcomes.
It’s for certain that we, as a society, must put more time, energy, and resources into investing in mental health services writ large. A 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that the suicide rate of black children between 5 and 11 years old had doubled between 1993 and 2013 — while the rate for white children had declined. And while the rates for white people remain the highest in the country, the rate for black people continues to show an uptick.
These sobering numbers reveal a bigger picture: that we must focus on mental illness in a way that doesn’t imply that mental health is only to prevent violence to oneself or others. Black people already live in a world that depicts our experiences equal pain; our health shouldn’t suffer that same linear thinking.
To be clear, could Sunday’s shooting be a result of mental health? Absolutely. Could it also be the result of toxic/fragile masculinity and confusing control with love? Certainly. And these can even co-exist. But we’re causing more harm than good by automatically assuming any violent act is rooted in mental illness, regardless of race. Albeit unintentionally, it makes mentally ill individuals scapegoats for violent acts and not much more.
After all, if we want to help people to become mentally healthy, then it’s likely best we not assume who they are is naturally rooted in violence just so we can receive the same treatment as our white counterparts.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.