Mental Health is Only a Small Part of the Issue - On the Thousand Oaks Tragedy

Editor's Note:

A therapeutic behavioral coach responds to the tragedy in Thousand Oaks and says beyond flagging mental health issues the conversation must turn to enacting gun control.

First and foremost Rest in Peace to the 12 victims who were shot and killed at the Borderline Bar in Thousand Oaks, CA by gunman Ian David Long. These incidents, mass shootings, are happening too frequently. Today as I scroll through my Facebook, I’m reading over and over by people on my feed how mass shootings are linked to mental health, arguing that these incidents are happening due to lack of mental health treatment. Mental health though, is only one small part of the bigger issue; gun control laws, domestic terrorism, a militarized culture, and white male aggro culture is the larger issue we as a society need to address. Focusing only on mental stability is minimizing the larger issues at hand and quite frankly it’s also a cop out.

A mental health practitioner is not a mind reader. In reality, a therapist can only help a person make better life choices, help someone cope with toxic feelings, assist a person to have better relationships and a better social life. And in most cases (besides court appointed mandated treatment), the client must want the help. A therapist cannot predict the future, and in the case of a client having thoughts of hurting others, there is little a therapist can do unless the client discloses that he has thoughts of hurting himself or others or there are clear indicators that the client is a danger, in which case a client could be put on psychiatric hold until the client appears stable. In the case of Ian David Long, back in April of this year he was assessed by a psychiatric mobile response team after his mother placed a 911 call. The sheriffs arrived and noted him acting “irate” in which case they called a psychiatric mobile response team to have him evaluated, they then determined he was stable and he was not placed on a hold; they did their due diligence. These responders are not mind readers.

In hindsight we know that Ian clearly had mental health issues, furthermore, we know that Ian having had mental health issues, possibly PTSD also had access to automatic assault weapons. The conversation now has to go from mental health to gun control - it has to. To put it in perspective, a person who went through a psychiatric hold evaluation 8 months ago, not only did he have access to guns, legally there was nothing stopping him from obtaining and using automatic assault weapons. In this particular case, Ian had prior contact with both 911 and with a mental health specialist, but those interventions were not enough to stop future actions. To give more perspective of how this is beyond mental health, Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas mass shooter who killed 51 people was a successful businessman without the indicators that he was mentally unstable, in fact his only recorded contact with police were traffic violations yet he was able to commit mass murder.

It would be reckless to profile Ian based on what we don’t know - his political beliefs, his ideology, his world view, etc. What we do know is that he fits the profile of almost every mass shooter, particularly during this administration and especially after election night. The conversation has to move from mental health, to truly addressing this issue as domestic terrorism. This has to be seen as a symptom of social decay, particularly in the form of divisive rhetoric, particularly from this administration. Perhaps Ian does not have radical ideology like Scott Beierle, the white man who shot and killed 2 people and injured 5 people before shooting himself at a Florida yoga studio 2 weeks ago. But although Ian may or may not have Scotts Beierle’s beliefs, he is still part of the same byproduct of someone who is willing to kill others when things are not going his way.  

We have to realize that we’ve hit a cultural breaking point. Historically in this society we’ve enabled men to express violence, sometimes unregulated, and although we are given the perception that extreme violence by men is only something seen on T.V., we have the reminder that Ian is also a byproduct of war, a concept so very relevant in our society. In fact so relevant that Ian used military tactics, even throwing a smoke bomb into the Boderline Bar before using a .45 caliber handgun with an extended magazine. We have to acknowledge that we live in a hyper masculine culture where men have to pump out their chest and are told that crying or expressing their emotions is not okay. And lastly, we have to acknowledge that America is now a divided nation, with points of views becoming radicalized; for example, former Trump advisor Steven Bannon, openly talks about the need for  a White national populist movement in America. His followers are arming themselves; we have to acknowledge that this is a real case of domestic terrorism.

Mental health disorders are only defined as disorders when a behavior does not fit the norms and functions of our society, and although mass shootings are not social norms, the symptoms associated are - male aggro culture, guns, militarization, power, etc. For a young person reading this, we’ve been fed ideas, as a world and as a society, about power, control and aggression that manifests itself in extreme forms of violence, just like it did with Ian David Long. We’re in a turning point as a society. Imagine a world where love and peace was the dominant force not power and control.


Hector Gonzalez is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Professionally he is a therapeutic behavioral coach.

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