In May 2023, there was another horrific act of evil in Allen, TX, when a gunman opened fire in a crowded mall parking lot. This was nearly one year after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. In Allen, eight were killed, including three young children; in Uvalde, 19 children, and two teachers were killed. Two evil men committed these acts of violence. The result has been too many destroyed lives.
Following these events, Texas Governor Abbott spoke to the communities involved and said similar things in both cases. Here are his words:
In Uvalde, Governor Abbott said the shooter had “a mental health challenge.” “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge…We as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health.”
In Frisco, he echoed a similar refrain. “What Texas is doing in a big-time way, we are working to address that anger and violence but going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it…People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”
The governor has it entirely backward. His words conflate evil with mental illness. This sends all the wrong messages. Mental illness is not evil. Mental illness is not the primary cause of violence. Numerous complex systemic factors contribute to violent acts, and to singularly blame mental illness and blindly ignore all the other potential contributors to violence is dismissive, neglectful, and irresponsible.
This makes the governor’s response backward because I believe the rise in gun violence contributes to a surge in mental health challenges. It is not the other way around. This is because mental illness has been with us since the dawn of time. It ebbs and flows with the impacts of life stresses and traumas. We know that mass events like famines, pandemics, wars, and other tragedies can have far-reaching implications for the mental health of nations. In other words, our mental health suffers as external stresses pile up. And these impacts can last for years. Gun violence is no exception, and it is one of those stresses.
With the advent of the Information Age in the later 1900s, we have increasingly faster access to information. We have gone from the 24-hour news cycle of newspapers to instant news at any second we want to access. This has led to living in a culture of fear. With a world of information in our hands, we have no time to process or digest all the information that floods our minds. As a result, our mental health suffers.
And with the threat of constant gun violence in our faces, our fear escalates. We avoid public spaces, including what should be one of our safest public spaces–church. So isolation increases along with our fear. And to think our children have remained unaffected is naive. Our children are intensely aware of the dangers in their world and schools. As I wrote in the May 2023 blog, “Teenage Mental Health Crisis,” regular lockdown drills in our schools are practiced trauma.
We should make mental health resources available and eliminate stigma from seeking mental health support. We need to increase mental health support to help us cope with the threats of violence in our neighborhoods. But, more importantly, we need to restore a sense of order and peace in our communities.
Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing some of those goals.
- Set limits on the amount of information you consume. None of us needs a constant feed of news from our phones or televisions. We also need to limit how much we scroll on social media. We know that higher levels of information input only increase our anxiety and distract us from what is most important right in front of us — our family, friends, and neighbors, which leads me to my second suggestion.
- Focus on those closest to you. Spend conversation and face-to-face contact with your immediate family and friends. Notice their needs and work to meet those needs. Provide service and support. None of us can solve the world’s big problems, but we can do something about the people right before us. Love those close to you.
- Please do what you can to stop supporting our violent subculture. Examine your life and world. Do you do things or say things that explicitly or implicitly support violence? Do you use violent language when you talk about topics? When talking about political adversaries or those you disagree with, you use fighting-oriented language, like “going to battle” or “we are at war.” Do you need to advertise guns on your bumper stickers, flags, or living room wall if you own guns? Do you play violent video games? Maybe we could all curb our connections to these words, images, or activities.
- We need to stop responding to gun violence as if it is a zero-sum game. If we keep responding like the goal is to beat the “bad guys,” then disagreement, conflict, and violence will only increase. Our goal should be to find ways to create safer, more peaceful communities for all of us, including the “bad guys.” If we do that, they may not be bad guys anymore. The focus is then on helping the community flourish and feel safe. Church leaders have many opportunities to implement programs, messages, and collaboration in this area, leading to my last point.
- We must make more significant strides in unifying with those different from us. Sadly, we often won’t share a meal or resources with the church down the street, let alone another community of faith. All faith communities can rally together around a message of peace and cooperation. We need to passionately pursue cooperative efforts with every faith community to find solutions for reducing violence in our streets and neighborhoods.