In the winter of 2013, I decided that I would purchase a gun and kill myself. I was in a very deep state of depression, with many days so debilitating that my mattress felt like a tub of quicksand pulling me deeper into a dark, bottomless free fall. That I could make it out of bed was a miracle.
I was too ashamed to ask for help, so I decided that the best route to ending my misery was a bullet to the head. But finding a gun legally in New York City proved to be challenging because of the city’s stringent gun laws, which require residents to pay hundreds of dollars in application fees (pdf) and wait for months on end for approval.
It is so hard to get a gun legally in New York City, some people have resorted to bribing cops to obtain a license.
Not to mention, the New York City Police Department is known for stopping black and Latino men and women on the street at rates disproportionate to those of white New Yorkers, so I feared a stop would foil my plan to kill myself. So I Googled nearby states with less-restrictive gun laws and settled on Vermont because the state doesn’t require a license to purchase a weapon or concealed-carry permit (pdf).
Fortunately, I got help and spent two years in therapy and a year on medication. I am fine now. I’m sharing my story because, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), without citing any proof, suggested that Stephen Paddock may have been mentally ill and that that explains his actions.
“One of the things we’ve learned from these shootings is often underneath this is a diagnosis of mental illness,” Ryan said. “That’s why the House of Representatives passed landmark mental-health reform just a year ago. That law is now being implemented. It’s important that as we see the dust settle and we see what was behind some of these tragedies, that mental-health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things from happening in the past.”
For one, no evidence has been made public that Paddock suffered from a mental illness. What is so dangerous about Ryan’s comments is that they conflate people who have serious mental-health issues with violent behavior.
While the issue of mental illness is a complex one, the American Psychological Association found in a 2014 study that there is not usually a direct correlation between mental illness and crime. Asserting that mentally ill people have some proclivity for violence to cover up Congress’ failure to pass sensible gun control laws further stigmatizes people who do not kill anyone.
Not to mention, it is a pretty cowardly thing to do.
What is equally egregious about Ryan’s comments is that he is the leading person in Congress who wants to scrap the Affordable Care Act, a policy that has provided some much-needed structure for the first time ever for people needing mental-health and substance abuse help.
The GOP’s proposed replacements, which, thankfully, have failed, would have made mental-health care even more expensive. I was lucky to have great health care connected to my job at the time, so I paid very little out of pocket proportionate to my salary. Most Americans who do not have employer-sponsored health care are not so lucky—especially people of color.
And if Ryan truly cared about the mentally ill, he would not be waging a war against Medicaid, which is the primary source (pdf) of funding mental-health and substance abuse treatment in the United States.
In addition to the help I got for depression, I really believe that New York City’s strict gun laws saved my life. I was very determined to kill myself. Had I been able to go to a gun store and purchase a hand gun, I would have done it, and I would not be here today.
What makes Ryan’s remarks so offensive is that they push the mentally ill further into a closet. One of the reasons I didn’t tell anyone about my suicidal thoughts was that I didn’t want anyone to think I was “crazy.” I know, it’s a loaded word, but that is the perception that those of us who have been depressed or have an ongoing mental illness deal with. I was truly afraid of speaking to someone for fear that he or she would assume I was a threat.
We do not know what Paddock’s mental state was, so I will not speculate. What we do know is that he had more than two dozen guns on him and many more at his home. That was the problem, not some unverified mental-illness diagnosis from a U.S. congressman whose superficial thoughts and prayers for Paddock’s victims do nothing to ensure that more of these mass shootings do not happen again.
I will agree with Ryan that there is a mental illness in America: the country’s refusal to drop its love affair with guns. New York City is not perfect. As a black resident, I am well aware of its ills and history with people of color, especially concerning its Police Department. But one thing New York City does right is ensure that no one can walk into a store and buy a gun without a vigorous background check. Even then, no one can conceal-carry, and semi-automatics are out of the question.
If people like Ryan spent more time trying to fix America’s health care system as opposed to attacking the Affordable Care Act, more people would have access to the same lifesaving mental-health treatment that’s responsible for me being here today.
None of that will happen until we stop politicizing the mentally ill. They already have enough stereotypes to battle besides the ones pushed by some coward in Washington, D.C., who really doesn’t care about their mental health or the people who died in Las Vegas Sunday night.