Blaming Mental Illness Creates Stigma

As the city of Roseburg and the community around Umpqua Community College try to process and recover from the Oct. 1 mass shooting that killed nine people and injured nine more, Oregon and the nation are seeking answers for why the shooter, who also died, would bring six guns to campus and seek to murder his writing class.

Oregon State Rep. Val Hoyle (D-West Eugene, Junction City) and Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) say laying the blame at the feet of mental illness just increases the stigma faced by those who suffer from it, who are actually more likely to be victims of violence than attackers.

“In the vast majority of these mass shootings, we know these  [shooters] tend to be white, male, angry and having a gun,” Gelser says. She points out that “being an angry person with violent intentions is not a subcategory of mental illness.”

Hoyle says we need to do a better job of understanding the symptoms of mental illness the way we do those of a stroke or heart attack. She has worked hard to not read about the shooter, she says, but points out that like the killer at Sandy Hook and Kip Kinkel at Thurston High School, “they all displayed symptoms that they were suffering from something, some kind of depression or break. Things were going on, but the people around them didn’t recognize it, didn’t do anything, didn’t get them the treatment they needed.”

She asks, “Is that because there’s a stigma around mental illness or is it because the treatment isn’t there?”

Hoyle says Oregon’s gun laws wouldn’t have stopped UCC shooter Chris Harper-Mercer from getting his 14 weapons, but recent changes to the laws in the 2015 legislative session mean that Cheryl Kidd, the woman who shot Eugene police officer Chris Kilcullen, wouldn’t have been able to get her weapon. SB 941 calls for universal background checks and for judges who have ordered someone to undergo outpatient mental health treatment to rule on whether that person should have her gun rights suspended during that treatment.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin testified against SB 941.

Hoyle says Kidd “was very clearly and obviously suffering from severe mental illness, paranoid delusions and hallucinating and was able to purchase a firearm.” She also says she had a friend who was able to walk into a gun shop, purchase a gun and use it to commit suicide. We need to protect civil liberties and private health information, she says, but we do need to raise a flag when someone needs help.

Pointing to online 4Chan postings the shooter allegedly made warning of the attack, Hoyle asks, “What’s wrong with us as a society that no one said, ‘I’m going to stop this’?”

She says we need to identify people like that as well as those who could hurt themselves. “If you saw someone on the ground with a broken leg, you’d call an ambulance, but who do you call for mental illness?” she asks.

Gelser is currently traveling the state with the Oregon Health Authority conducting behavioral health town hall meetings, reaching out to those who have had difficulties accessing mental health and substance use disorder treatment in Oregon. There is no Eugene meeting scheduled, but Gelser says there are plans for a virtual town hall that can be called into from anywhere.

More than 100 people showed up to the first two meetings in Klamath Falls and La Grande, and a big issue is stigma, she says. “Mainstream media is saying the main reason is because the shooter was mentally ill,” Gelser says, and that’s “hurtful and harmful and creates another barrier” for those who need access  to mental health care.

For a list of the OHA behavioral health town halls, go to