Why it’s a problem: This sloppy reporting from CBS News is emblematic of broader problems in the media when reporting on mass shootings, and how the term mental health has become an ambiguous catch-all for any and all problematic behavior, including criminal. When describing the Maine shooting suspect’s background, the author notes that he has a “history of mental health issues,” but this only stigmatizes people’s medical histories the same way that people might invoke a rap sheet, especially when it’s not made clear how that history is relevant to the gunman’s motivations. According to a recent Harvard study, about 50% of the world’s population will experience mental illness during their lifetimes, which means that almost half of the people we know will have a “history of mental illness” by the time they reach old age.

Other news outlets mention that Card had been making threats of killing people for several months. This is the most important element in the story, but is being downplayed in reporting that has come out so far. If Card had been making threats for several months, why was he not under law enforcement surveillance? Muslims and Black activists are put on watch lists for much less. When someone is making violent threats, that should provide an immediate opening for intervention. (It should also be noted here that Card was reportedly hospitalized over the summer, which confirms something I’ve mentioned before, which is that psychiatry is not the appropriate tool for preventing violence, which has been endemic in all of American history.) The real systemic failures to act on any red flags here — which are NOT military service or mental illness — was that the person had been making explicit threats for months and was still allowed to obtain a firearm. Because the media needs access to law enforcement, however, they don’t report as critically as they should on these systemic failures, which is one of many reasons that “mental health” gets scapegoated instead.


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