Please Stop Assuming Stephen Paddock Must Have Been ‘Mentally Ill’

Stephen Paddock (CBS News screenshot)
Stephen Paddock (CBS News screenshot)

I used to be deathly afraid of being outed about my mental-health struggles. What if I got a speeding ticket and ended up on the front page of my local paper? Award-winning writer found with unknown crazy-people prescription pills in car while driving with child!


I could get into a car accident or curse out a waitress at Applebee’s (allegedly) or shoplift a planner from Office Depot (I thought she rang it up!), or someone could see me yell at my kid, who reads while crossing the street. Or I could cut someone off in traffic, go into a Laundromat only for quarters or eat an entire box of Pop-Tarts (allegedly).

No matter what, the meds I take each day and the therapist I see every week would be used as proof: THIS is why she cursed out the waitress at Applebee’s! When, in reality, she was just being a jerk and I was hungry and jet-lagged (allegedly).

So of course, because Stephen Paddock was immediately assumed to be a lone wolf, folks started to think. Well, why would he do this?

Here’s a comment on my Facebook page:

It doesn’t look like this was about racism, religion or politics so mental illness is all that’s left …

I read that and wanted to punch a wall. What sense does that make?! Oh well, no racism or religion or politics. Let’s just call him crazy and be done with it.

First, it’s only been a day. We don’t know everything. We may never know. Why are some of us so sure what his motivation was or was not?


And why is there this undercurrent, this need to throw out mental illness and tie it all up with a neat little bow?

That’s not how mental health works. Like any label, it’s layered and nuanced.

Every few years, the American Psychiatric Association publishes a manual for diagnosing mental disorders. The most recent version is called the DSM-5, and there are over 300 disorders listed. Some we all know and throw out often: Depression! Bipolar! Anxiety! Many we don’t know: functional neurological symptom disorder?


If you look through all of the definitions, you’ll see how ridiculous it is to reach into that grab bag for a random diagnosis for anyone who commits an unspeakable crime.

(And even if we want to brand him a simple, garden-variety psychopath, please note that psychopathy isn’t considered a mental disorder, and even if it were, he doesn’t fit the profile, at least not right now.)


So let’s talk about what mental illness is—and isn’t. No longer can we just envision hospitals and straitjackets and needles and lobotomies. Medication and therapy and alternative medications and exercise and diet and misdiagnoses of all kinds are part of the story. But mass killings? Not necessarily. For a better understanding of the typical mental-health story, you can envision … me.

I’m a resident of what I like to call Crazytown. And my block is a relatively boring place in the neighborhood. I need therapy and meds. Shit can get hectic if I’m not diligent about both. Before finding the right doctors and meds, I was a mess. All in all, pretty simple stuff.


Now let’s talk about you. Or maybe someone you know. Know anyone with insomnia? Alzheimer’s? Maybe someone who is a hoarder or has OCD? Do you know folks who have anxiety or maybe bite their nails? All of those items are in the DSM-5 because mental disorders are multifaceted, and 1 in 5 Americans live here in my city.

All of those people aren’t in the category of Stephen Paddock. Does he live here in Crazytown? Maybe. Are we sure? No.


There are a whole lot of folks who live in my hood who are not shooting up country music concerts. We’re just making sure we get to the pharmacy beforehand so we can spend an hour on trying to find the ultimate travel pill holder.

I get that it’s easy to explain away scary behavior with a catchall like “mental illness.” But it’s ineffective and harmful to those who are trying to cope. If we’re constantly rushing to label every bad guy crazy, it’s especially damning for those struggling to seek help.


Sometimes “normal” people do super-awful things. Like open fire on hapless folks just gathered to listen to some music.

Sometimes “abnormal” people do super-awful things. Like open fire on hapless folks just gathered to listen to some music.


But ultimately, until some facts emerge, it’s simple: Anyone can do awful things—whether they live in my town or not.

Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books. She has written professionally since 1998.


This is great. I will, however, say this: toxic white masculinity.