Photo of Scott Hoesman

Like any of us, the fatal shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida this past February rocked me to the core. In many ways, we are still mourning the loss of those gunned down so violently. Out of the tears and the anger has come impassioned debate about gun control—with much of the focus of this divisive issue placed on mental health.

I get all of that. I understand the pain. I feel the anger. And I’m part of the debate about what we do next. And yet, at the same time, I’m troubled by what too often feels like an unfortunate mischaracterization of people who have mental health disabilities.

It continues to be apparent that we have a difficult time talking about and appreciating the breadth and meaning of what is too often simply labeled by the media and others as “mental illness.” I’m not a fan of trying to be politically correct, but language and labels matter, and I think we have much work to do as a society on this topic. I’ll speak for myself, finding the right words and labels is sometimes hard.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking to make an excuse for the shooter, but I am thinking about the millions of non-violent, well-meaning Americans who have mental health conditions that had to listen to broad, negative, and sweeping generalizations in the days and weeks after this story unfolded.

The truth is, this subject still carries with it some very serious stereotypes, including the falsehood of linking mental illness to violence. That’s one of the factors that may drive people away from help when they need it.

“The notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness,” explains Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish of the Vanderbilt University Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, they say, “Notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural issues that become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when ‘mentally ill’ ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.”

I don’t know the situation and experience of the Florida shooter. But what I do know is that as we debate, legislate, and adjudicate these violent shootings, we cannot let such terrible acts spread a harmful stereotype about all people with mental disabilities. It helps to keep in mind the truth stated at the very beginning of the Americans with Disabilities Act:

“That physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination.”

Scott is a Director on the Board of USBLN (US Business Leadership Network) which unites business around disability inclusion.