I’m a threat to public safety.

At least, that’s the message gleaned from pundits and politicians whenever a mass shooting occurs in the United States — the mentally ill are dangerous.

I can feel the peering eyes of strangers weighing down my shoulders each time the cycle begins anew.

After each act of mass violence, as soon as reports discount any link to international terrorism, the conversation turns on a dime to mental health, usually before anything of substance is known about the perpetrator.

The Trump administration’s go-to refrain is that talk of gun control politicizes the tragedy and is best reserved for a later date that, of course, never comes. But it has no qualms about politicizing mental health disorders that affect roughly a quarter of all Americans.

Despite progress made to destigmatize mental illness, we are all too eager to accept the dominant narrative without further examination.

It’s the comfortable thing to do.

Those of us who suffer from mental illness become the “other.” The villain to be feared. The convenient scapegoat that absolves the nation’s collective guilt.

The first time I had an anxiety attack came more than a decade before I learned the term. While dressing for a hockey game I realized I had forgotten my most important piece of equipment — the nut cup.

I was too embarrassed to tell my coach, so instead I squirreled away to the bushes outside the arena to await my parents’ arrival, setting off a frantic search by my teammates’ parents. I could hear them shouting my name as I stood without shoes or a jacket in the snow, my chest brimming like an overinflated balloon.

The situation was risible, my behavior completely irrational, but that’s how many mental illnesses operate. They twist and bend perception to create diverging, often frightening, realities.

When I reached adulthood, a series of tragedies shattered my youthful invincibility and left me teetering on the edge, drifting through life.

At times my lungs felt so tight that it seemed the only way to achieve relief would be to pierce my rib cage with a knife.

Afraid of the stigma, I resisted help until self-mutilation led to a stay in the hospital. Even then, I told the doctors that I didn’t need to be there. I wasn’t like the others, I thought.

Years later, I finally came to terms with my illness and accepted that it wasn’t a passing feeling, but something that would be with me for the rest of my life. Only then was I able to step onto the path toward recovery.

Even in the worst of episodes, I was never a threat to anyone but myself. In fact, my greatest fear is doing harm to others.

This is a common trait among the afflicted. Rather than the shocking lack of empathy displayed by mass murderers, we are overwhelmed by it.

Contrary to popular belief, the mentally ill are more likely victims of violent crime than perpetrators. The overwhelming majority of violence is committed by people we consider sane.

When I scroll through the news following mass shootings, I think of all the people suffering in silence, afraid to seek out the help they so desperately need.

There are already too many consequences for doing just that.

The time I spent in the hospital precluded me from acquiring health insurance prior to the Affordable Care Act. This essay will likely preclude me from many employment opportunities.

That’s the world we live in. We must strive for something better.

Meanwhile, next time there is a mass shooting — because there will always be a next time so long as we deflect from the real causes — instead of perpetuating a narrative that does more harm than good, hug your friend or family member who suffers from mental illness. Treat them with the empathy that you would hope to receive.

Half of all Americans will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. No one is immune. You, or one of your family members, could be next.

Those of us who have suffered before will be there with open arms.

 

Jeff Ernst is a freelance writer in Dassel, Minn.