Mental illness cannot be immediate reasoning when tragedy strikes


Mental illness cannot be immediate reasoning when tragedy strikes

By Brooke Pawling Stennett

After Stephen Paddock opened fire on thousands of fans at an Oct. 1 country music festival, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds, many speculated whether Paddock had been diagnosed with a mental illness. 

This kind of speculation is expected considering society’s ignorance about mental health. We all want to know how someone could aim from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel and commit the largest mass murder in modern U.S. history. As a wealthy, white, 64-year-old man who gambled, Paddock doesn’t fit white America’s definition of a terrorist, so many in our society, including our lawmakers, seem quick to assume he must have a mental illness. 

However, there have been no reports as of press time of Paddock being diagnosed with a mental illness, other than being prescribed anti-anxiety medication in June. Anxiety can be debilatating,  but 40 million adults aged 18 and older suffer from it, according to the Anxiety and Depression Assocation of America. It is unfair to the victims and those who live with a mental illness to justify Paddock’s actions because of a common prescription. 

Even a discovery of a serious mental illness diagnosis would not necessarily be a motive for his actions. According to, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people living with a serious mental illness. 

A serious mental illness is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that results in serious functional impairment and substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. According to the same source, only 4 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 and over in 2015 were diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. 

Mental illnesses are manageable—both severe and not—and millions of people go through their daily lives without committing violent acts such as this. There is a severe lack of positive representation of people with mental illness and if they only receive global attention when devastating, horrific acts happen, it will further alienate them from society. 

“One of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in an Oct. 3 press conference just days after the shooting. At this point, there were still no reports that Paddock was ever diagnosed. 

Ryan added in the press conference that mental health reform is crucial to understanding tragedies like the Las Vegas shooting and preventing them from happening again. However, there was no mention of gun control laws, and when asked if it was a mistake to make it easier for mentally ill people to get a gun, Ryan reportedly paused and then moved on. 

The question referred to a law passed Feb. 15 nixing a Social Security Administration regulation that would have put the names of disability recipients with serious mental illnesses into the FBI background check database for gun buyers. 

We cannot deny that those diagnosed with a mental illness are capable of committing violent acts, and with more access to guns, it could become more commonplace. However, people who do not have a mental illness are just as capable of committing such crimes. It’s time to stop assuming mental health is to blame if an act is incomprehensible or doesn’t fit an agenda. Everyday people can commit the most heinous of crimes. Americans, of all people, should know this by now.