Mr. Wayne LaPierre:
I am writing to express my astonishment and disgust toward your words in today’s NRA press conference. While I, like hundreds of millions of others, share your sense of grief and confusion in these days following the tragedy in Newtown, I am especially concerned and hurt by the insensitive, dehumanizing, and altogether toxic language you used in your commentary today.
In the year since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve become very active as an advocate for mental health issues. Many of my friends have mental health diagnoses, and I’ve seen firsthand the variety of ways that mental illness affects people’s lives. As difficult as these health struggles have been for so many of us, the greatest challenge that many of us face is stigma.
Stigma is social disapproval that results in fear, shame, silence, and prejudice. People with mental illness face stigma every day. We are thought of, and treated as, violent, inferior, and fodder for mockery. Perceptions like this come from miseducation, generations of socialization, and simple assumption.
In your statement today, you lamented that the federal government has yet to a comprehensive database of people with mental illness. This is necessary, you implied, so that we can know who the “killers” are.
The problem with your suggestion, Mr. LaPierre, is that we live in a society where people with mental illness are often already marginalized and made to feel ‘different.’ The vast majority of people with mental illness are fully capable of living full and successful lives, but that fact is lost on people like yourself who truly see us as Different. Loss of self-esteem and social isolation, both of which are already a part of life with mental illness, result directly from the stigma. More dangerously, stigma leads to reluctance to seek treatment.
Furthermore, mental illness, like any other illness or health condition, is not a character flaw. It is not a personal failure. It is not something that one brings upon oneself. To place someone on a database of potential “killers,” likely holding that person back from acquiring a job, adopting a child, or living a comfortable life, because a health condition beyond that person’s control is unconscionable. What you are suggesting would threaten to needlessly ruin the lives of tens of thousands.
Not once in your statement did you mention the need for treatment and support for people with mental illness. Rather, you called us “killers,” when we’re more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. You used words like “monsters,” “deranged,” and “evil,” words that dehumanize and demean, words with unfortunate and long-reaching cultural associations with mental illness. These are words that oppress, and they hold back progress.
I’m not asking you for an apology, or even a response. I only hope that you consider this letter the next time you publicly discuss issues of mental health.
(To readers: the full transcript of LaPierre’s statement is currently on nra.org)