Let me begin by first letting you know, dear reader, that this entire post will be dedicated to mass shootings. Please do not listen to this episode if you need to shelter from traumatic stress. Instead, send up a prayer and take care of yourself so that you can go out into the world and do the good you are here to do. In fact, that is largely the conclusion of today’s lengthy conversation, and this episode will be here when you’re ready.
I want to start out by first recognizing the magnitude of loss experienced by the victims, families, and first responders who have been directly impacted by the church shooting in Laguna Woods, CA, the grocery store shooting in Buffalo, NY, and the school shooting in Uvalde, TX.
Churches, groceries stores, and schools should have been safe spaces, so I’d like to apologize on behalf of our government, our institutions, and our media - all of which create, perpetuate, and monetize violence in many forms, but above all others, gun violence. I’m sorry we haven’t done better and my heart goes out to you.
May we be reminded of your humanity and how much you matter, no matter how much people in power will try to drown out your stories with their dramatic, deluded debates that neglect to see your experience for what it is: an entirely preventable atrocity.
Anyone who speaks about your experience in any other way is missing the point. Anyone who uses the loss of your life as a campaign to continue their career is monetizing mass shootings. And anyone who uses your pain as propaganda to protect their politics is perpetuating the problem at hand.
I think these exploitations are important to recognize, because if you’ve been paying attention, you will see that there are many people leaping to the stage with their dramatized rage trying to control the story in their favor. This is all a distraction from the magnitude of the problem.
And the problem is very big. Since Uvalde on May 24, there have already been 14 more mass shootings.
If we don’t see distractions for what they are, we will never heal this gaping wound in our nation.
You’ve probably heard these distraction stories of exploitation by now. I certainly have. There are some people who want us to believe that these shootings were caused by unlocked back doors. Or that a legitimate solution is to place armed guards at the front doors.
And today - Memorial Day - is unfortunately no different.
Today, your newsfeed might be sprinkled with resentful reminders that our freedom was won with guns.
As much as I vehemently renounce violence in all its forms, this statement is sadly true. But this statement is also incomplete.
It’s far more accurate to say that our freedom was won by people who have served us by becoming well-trained, routinely evaluated, and strictly supervised in their use of weapons of war.
I am grateful for the many who have died so that I may live. I am grateful to their families and the sacrifices they have made. I appreciate the commitment it takes to serve this country and understand the struggle of living a military life. So if you have served, are serving, or are the survivor of someone who has served, I sincerely thank you for your sacrifice.
At the same time, I also refuse reckless rhetoric that undermines this sacrifice. It’s not only that people lay down their lives in defense of my rights, but it is also that they lay down their time to invest in the training, they open up their lives to be evaluated, and they willingly subject themselves to strict supervision.
They recognize that the right to bear arms comes with earning the responsibility to yield it. I am a beneficiary of this commitment and I recognize this - today and every day.
It’s no secret that I’m a supporter of common sense gun law. If law dictates that I take a course, pass an evaluation, and regularly reapply for a license in order to drive a car… if it requires that I pass the age of 21 to drink alcohol… and if I need to be in school for 8 years before legally becoming a medical doctor… There's no reason getting a gun shouldn’t require advanced training, ongoing evaluation, and strict supervision.
But although I’m an advocate and activist who dips her toes into the world of law, I am not, in fact, a lawyer. So I’m not going to give a rebuttal to the argument that everyone has a right to bear arms, even though I don’t believe even I should have that right as an untrained, unevaluated, unsupervised civilian.
Instead, I’d like to respond to the longest running excuse for mass shootings: mental health. Specifically, I want to help us understand how mass shootings are not caused by mental health issues, but rather it is the other way around. To do that, I’d like to bring you back to the beginning of my career.
December 14, 2012, after murdering his mother at home, a shooter - who will not be named to prevent increasing his celebrity status - opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut murdering 6 adults and 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 years old.
I was 25 years old at the time and about to graduate from my masters program in counseling. I’d already been working in mental health for over a year, specializing in trauma and stress management. I witnessed friends fear for their children and listened to the conversations around the chaos.
But what stood out to me the most as a new counselor was the messaging around Sandy Hook. People were quick to conclude that it happened because the shooter was mentally ill.
This was startling to me as a newly minted mental health provider. If the argument was that this shooter’s mental health was the cause of his massacre, then that meant that preventing mass shootings just became part of my job description.
To be clear though, two years later, the Office of the Child Advocate issued a report saying that although the shooter had Aspberger's syndrome and depression, anxiety, and OCD as a teenager, “neither caused nor led to his murderous acts.” The report also said: "his severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems ... combined with an atypical preoccupation with violence ... (and) access to deadly weapons ... proved a recipe for mass murder."
So, it was the combination of a predilection for violence and access to deadly weapons alongside mental health problems that was determined to be the cause.
Many people believed that Sandy Hook was the last straw for our country. Hopeful advocates against gun violence were sure that the murder of a group of small children was the tipping point and that there would be institutional and governmental changes that would make situations like Sandy Hook less likely to ever happen again.
And yet, ten years later, we are still mourning the loss of more school children and countless people of color to senseless acts of sadism. Sadly, we are also hearing the same rhetoric that was repeated back then: Shootings happen because shooters are mentally ill.
By the time I graduated in 2012, I’d already completed two years of active research and practice in counseling - specifically the neurobiology of trauma and stress. This included 54 credit hours across 18 content areas and almost 2,000 hours of supervised clinical practice.
Since then, I’ve completed a two-year fellowship focused on marriage, families, and children, I’ve earned a certification in neurofeedback, I’ve worked with countless clients from diverse backgrounds, I completed another few dozen credit and 1,000 supervised practice hours in my PhD, I’ve actively engaged in a 12-year research study using heuristic inquiry focused on the neuroscience that causes disease and disorder, I’ve been a counselor educator for various universities for almost 10 years, I’ve given keynotes and workshops on the neurobiology of trauma, and have taken the TEDx stage.
After everything I’ve learned and witnessed, I am here to say one thing - and to say it very clearly: As a mental health professional, I reject the idea that mass shootings are caused by mental health.
As humans, our most basic, fundamental need is for protection.
Protection is a very physical process. It doesn’t happen at the level of the mind. It has everything to do with the body.
It’s enforced through consequences, roadblocks, and strong boundaries.
You encounter this strength any time you forget your password, especially if it’s for a bank and you’ve maxed out your attempts so your account closes entirely. Think about how difficult it is to recover your password. It’s a very slow, bureaucratic process that takes a long time, and it’s kind of a pain.
Protection - in our world - is performed by strong, slow entities like governments and institutions - all of them have power because they’ve been around for a long time, have accrued wealth, and there are a lot of people who are working toward a common goal. Governments and institutions are the primary force of protection on our planet. They create the very slow, bureaucratic processes that enact consequences to violations of the law, create roadblocks that create pauses for consideration, and establish strong boundaries against what has been deemed impractical, unpatriotic, or unsafe.
Governments provide protection via laws and public policy.
Laws and policies are agreed upon terms that should protect the people who are governed by them. They’re put into place to ensure there are consequences for anyone who chooses to threaten the way things ought to be.
This practice is highly effective because who wants to experience a million dollar lawsuit for violating intellectual property laws. Who wants a speeding ticket? Who wants to be audited by the IRS?
Because there are consequences that actively interfere with our lives.
Sadly though, even though governments and institutions create these protective policies… they don’t apply to all people everywhere. They’ve very exclusive.
For example, women were only granted a PROTECTED right to vote in 1920 People of color weren’t given this PROTECTED right until 1965. The LGBTQIAA community wasn’t granted the PROTECTED right to marry until 2015 And now the Supreme Court is once again revoking a woman’s PROTECTED right to be sovereign in her own body.
Laws and policies only protect the people chosen by the government and the institutions that support it, leaving the majority of us vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
But remember, protection is a primary need. When it’s not met, there are consequences. And here’s what happens.
If you take your hand and close your fist around your thumb, you’ll get a model of the brain. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this the brain in the palm of your hand. Your fingers wrapped around your thumb represent the cortex. This is the most human part of our brain. It’s responsible for executive thinking and decision-making. It’s what keeps us from punching our boss or primal screaming when someone cuts in front of us in line. The cortex is constantly rationalizing and planning and making very human, high-level decisions.
Your thumb - that’s the limbic system. Contrary to popular thought, the limbic system is NOT the center of emotion. Emotion is actually a process of communication between the parts of your brain - it’s not centered in any one area. Instead, the limbic system is the coordinator. It collaborates with the cortex and brainstem to determine if and how they can all work together well.
Your wrist is the brainstem. Now, the brainstem is the most primal part of our brain. It doesn’t care that you’ll get into trouble, if it had its way, you would totally be punching and primal screaming through your entire life. The only thing the brainstem cares about is keeping you alive and safe… and this means protecting you even when no one else will.
And that’s why it’s so important for humans to have protection. When the brainstem feels protected and safe, it’s like a content toddler sitting in the back seat of your car licking on a lollipop, jamming to Baby Shark, safely tucked away in its car seat.
Meanwhile, the limbic system is in the passenger seat, reading the GPS for the cortex who’s comfortably commanding your life from the driver seat.
But when the brainstem is feeling unsafe - when it’s not protected - forget about it. That tiny toddler turns into a Grade A Tyrant, launching its little body into the front seat, taking the wheel, and turning it into oncoming traffic if that’s what it thinks is necessary to survive.
Obviously the cortex and limbic system know better, but the brainstem doesn’t care. If you’re not safe, it goes nuts. And it’ll do all kinds of things that it thinks will keep you alive:
Like incessantly check that the curling iron is off even though you’ve already checked it three times.
Or restrict your eating because you’ve learned that being overweight is a threat to your social connections - our primary source of protection.
Or your brainstem might actually put you in a state of depressed stress because it’s learned that moving around in the world is pretty dangerous.
The point is that when your brainstem perceives threat, it doesn’t consult your cortex or line up your limbic system for questioning. It jumps in the front seat and drives - and everybody else in your brain just holds on for dear life.
And as you can see, all the examples I gave you - they’re mental health issues.
So feeling protected is actually a source of primary prevention against mental illness because it stops the brainstem from having to do - quite literally - crazy things.
As we just discussed, the problem is that most people are not protected.
The government and our institutions have very specific criteria for who is protected and who is not. If you’re white and wealthy, then you’re protected. Tax codes, money laws, education systems, asset acquisition, health care - it’s all set up to benefit people who have light skin and lots of money.
So if you don’t have light skin and you don’t have lots of money, you are not protected.
Oh, and male.
You also need to have testicles and identify as highly masculine and play by the rules of that game to be part of the protected population.
Oh, and straight.
You can’t be a masculine guy who falls in love with other masculine guys. That’s against the rules too.
So if you’re a woman, or someone whose gender identity is not binary, or if you’re a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or if you’re someone not abled in your body, or are divergent in your mind… there are laws and loopholes working against your protection.
For example, the tax code. Wages are taxed at the highest rate, whereas other means of wealth acquisition are taxed at the lowest. This means people in poverty are likely to stay impoverished, forced to pay for a government that does not pay them.
Also, if you have a uterus, a soon-to-be unfortunate reality - thanks to the Supreme Court - is that the government will soon own that uterus once again.
Another example is a practice called Redlining. In 1933, the “New Deal” determined zoning of metropolitan areas to increase the number of American houses on the market to recover from the Great Depression. The politicians in power drew strategic lines that encouraged segregation, placing communities of color in underfunded areas. The “rough parts” of town aren’t rough because of who live there. They’re rough because they were cut off from prosperity and protection almost a century ago.
Another example is, of course, the recent shooting in Buffalo. Over and over again, our black and brown neighbors are murdered in plain site and there has no action at the level of our government to stop it. In fact, up until a couple years ago, the person in the highest position in our government, was actively for it.
I could go on and on, but I think my point is well made.
The reality is that millions and millions and millions of people in our nation are not protected. They are actively betrayed by governmental policies and the institutions that support it - including the gun lobby - every day.
And now you know that when we are not protected, our brainstem takes the wheel. And when our brainstem is in command, we end up with mental health issues.
And guess where all these people end up?
In the offices of mental health professionals everywhere.
Now, it’s also important to add that we are all recovering from a period in which none of us felt protected. COVID-19 continues to impact us and our ability to feel safe, which is why the mental health crisis magnified in the last few years.
Despite the increased need, mental health funding continues to be the number one underfunded sector of healthcare. You don’t see problems of underfunding in medical professions - you see it in mental health professions.
Which means that the troves of people who are experiencing mental health issues as a result of feeling unprotected are running into the arms of an underfunded, understaffed mental health system that is just trying to pick up the mess left behind by a neglectful, insulated bureaucracy only serving an elite few.
So… that’s the picture I see.
Mental health is a consequence of a neglectful, violent system.
It is not the cause of it.
So when you hear a political person say that a shooter picked up a gun and murdered a group of people because of mental health, please know, this is inaccurate and incomplete.
Shooters aren’t violent because they have mental health issues.
They have mental health issues because they are victims of violence.
Now, this might seem like semantics - or a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation. But it’s not. It’s meaningful and important, because if we don’t understand the source of this problem, we will never solve it.
So let me say that again.
Shooters aren’t violent because they have mental health issues.
They have mental health issues because they are victims of violence.
Make no mistake, our government is a violent one. Our violence is what freed us from the chains of Mother England, so it is embedded into our cells. If you are not yet aware of this violence, you’re not paying attention.
And to me, the worst kind of violence - the kind that wreaks the most havoc on our world - is the kind that makes people act like everything is fine when the whole world is on fire.
It’s a unique brand of violent delusion to look at the way things are and send the message that nothing is wrong and everything’s alright. Call it a political opinion or a defense of rights, no matter what you call it, it’s conspiracy, lies, and sadism at its very best.
What’s sad about this sadism is that it is perpetrated by its victims - inflicted by the very people who’ve had it inflicted upon themselves. For most, this victimization begins shortly after they’re born.
Growing up in poverty with parents who are afflicted by addiction… being raised by an overwhelmed, unavailable single parent… pressured into perfection to save face and to save the family’s fortunate… being made to believe that corporal punishment is normal and good… and despite all this, having to act like everything is fine because failing to do so and fighting back inevitably amplifies the abuse.
This is a trauma response.
Delusion and denial don’t develop overnight. It’s the product of lifelong learning and for being rewarded for it. What we are seeing in the men who hold this nation hostage is the product of their own violent pasts.
Although this trauma is not necessarily unique to white men, it is particularly important for us to see this trauma in white men.
Because a white supremacist culture puts white men in positions of power, their special brand of trauma and their roles as victims of this violence has been written into our history books, woven into the tapestry of our culture, and codified into law as if it’s normal.
Let me speak more directly: Men in power have been abused and taught to pretend as if it’s normal. These men then expect us to do the same - to be abused and to pretend as if it’s normal.
And many of us are. Just as we have been instructed, we cope in exactly the same way. We ignore our pain, deny our disappointment, and choose to believe that this world isn’t on fire though much of the land is literally burning before our very eyes.
This kind of silent sadism is cyclical, stubborn, and sick.
But again, mental illness is not the cause of violence. It is the consequence.
Our bodies live in a violent world, which turns our minds into a violent place to be.
Until we all reject the value of violence and pay attention to the pain we are in, the trauma of these men will continue to be passed through our social consciousness just as it has been for millennia.
It will continue to show up in our media. It will continue to show up in our imaginations. And it will continue to show up in our churches, stores, and schools.
Something must be done.
This is what I believe.
Although our collective culture is a victim of violence, the traumatic denial and delusion of the white supremacists need not be our trauma. Their truth need not be our truth.
Social consciousness is simply a product of our social brain, and the social brain is made up of single brains. And the good news is that your single brain is something over which you have immense control.
We all must work to unravel the lies we’ve been told to reveal a more bold, beautiful way of being. One rooted in seeing the truth of the problems we face today.
You can’t make others come out of the cocoon of denial and delusion. But you can liberate yourself.
If you weed out the lies that nothing is wrong to make room for a garden of truth, others will see you blossom and believe they can do the same.
Seeing the truth can start small. Ask yourself:
How do I perpetuate the illusion that all is well with the world? Where did I first learn to do that?
How do I neglect the pain of this planet? How do I neglect my own?
And most importantly: how do I inflict violence upon myself everyday by sustaining a state of never-ending stress?
We are all stress addicts, biologically attached to adrenaline and cortisol. We get our fix with true crime stories and violent films, teaching our brains this is what’s normal and good so it is no wonder that we are numb and negligent to the true crimes and violence of reality.
On top of that thrill-seeking, we also seek self-importance by filling our schedules, and avoiding silence at all costs.
These habits cultivate a mini storm of self-sabotage inside of us, an exhausting sequence of stress that leaves no space for the real crises we collectively face today.
Manage your stress to make more room for what matters. This is the greatest gift we can each give to the world because it makes your individual world less violent, more protected, and more peaceful.
Start small and start today.
Simply notice all the times you inflict violence upon yourself. The self-criticism, the body shaming, the “never enough” script in your mind.
And then stop it. Whatever it takes. Stop doing it.
When we cease the violence within ourselves, we cease the need to contribute to it on the outside. We stop inflicting it upon other people, and we stop inflicting it upon our planet.
So… we’re not violent because we’re sick. We’re sick because we’re violent.
Mental illness does not cause shootings. Shootings cause us to become mentally ill.
As for those who are still using denial and delusion as a tactic to survive this trauma, I feel sad for them. I can’t imagine having to give up my humanity as part of the contract to gain my manhood.
Their trauma need not be our trauma.
Their truth need not be our truth.
Violence is the source of all our sickness. Peace is the only true protection.
Thanks for sticking with me through this rather excruciating post.
Take care of you - that’s really the only thing you can ever do.