NEW YORK — Payton Gendron, the accused gunman in the Buffalo, New York mass shooting, has left a trail of evidence that shows that he strongly embraced white supremacist beliefs. He was also kept at a hospital for a mental health evaluation last year.
The combination of those facts has raised questions about mental health issues and racism. Experts in psychology and antiracism acknowledge that the two topics have been mentioned in the same conversations since last Saturday’s mass shooting, but they also warned against tying the two together.
Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, a clinical psychologist who teaches psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, pointed to figures that show how common mental illness is, and how very infrequently violence is carried out by people with mental health issues.
“One in five Americans have a mental illness, and one in 20 have a serious mental illness,” Jeglic said in an interview, “and the vast majority of those individuals are not violent, or do not engage in racist violence.”
The statistics she cited support the assessment of another clinical psychologist, Dr. Ziv Cohen, the director of Principium Psychiatry. Cohen has dealt specifically in terrorist incidents during his career, while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. He’s also studied radicalized attackers in his research, and pointed out that Gendron had been radicalized.
However, Dr. Cohen said most people who share racist opinions don’t have a mental disorder.
“There’s no evidence to support that that simply espousing racist opinions means that you’re mentally disordered,” Cohen continued. “What it means is that you have an ideology that you imbibe, which is a false ideology.”
In Gendron’s case, he apparently embraced that false ideology deeply. According to investigators, he wrote a 180-page manifesto before carrying out the attack that he’s accused of. They said that the manifesto contains lengthy, specific language against Black people, as well as other non-whites, immigrants, and Hasidic Jews.
Gendron was also admitted to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation last year, after he threatened, in writing, to carry out a mass killing at the high school from which he graduated last year.
Those details again show that racism and mental health challenges are both part of Gendron’s life. However, joining the psychologists in saying that the two issues are separate overall, is an advocate for antiracism.
“There’s certainly millions of people who’ve suffered from COVID-related mental illness who haven’t gone on to commit terrible racial atrocities,” said Dr. Stefan Lallinger, the director of the Bridges Collaborative at The Century Foundation.
It works against racism by countering influences like those Gendron allegedly consumed, Lallinger said, including “racist content online and in the media echo chamber that amplifies this racist content, as well as politicians who don’t condemn it.”
“There are serious undercurrents of vicious racism affecting our body politic,” Lallinger continued, “and that these undercurrents have deadly and disastrous consequences for people of color in our country, and therefore impact the entire society in a negative way.”
Experts on radicalization, and mental health point out that in Gendron’s case, specifically, any argument that mental health issues are part of the killings he’s accused of gets shut down by Gendron himself, in his lengthy manifesto and other evidence.
“To the extent that he has written about racist views,” said Dr. Cohen, “that would hurt his case in a mental health defense because here you have him putting forward that his motivation is racism.”
Dr. Lallinger, the antiracism advocate, also works with young people, like Gendron, through Lallinger’s organization, the Bridges Collaborative. He said that it’s through young people that there is the greatest potential for change.
“To make sure that we are creating and fostering communities and schools where young people develop healthy habits,’ said Lallinger, “where they are in diverse communities and have opportunities to engage with people who don’t look like them, or [who] may come from different backgrounds than they do, and have access to an honest dialogue about the elements of our history that are rooted in racism.”
Lallinger said people should speak about these issues to raise young people who can talk about them “in earnest. He said doing so has positive results.
“So that when they do encounter some of these really extreme, racist ideologies online and in media more generally, that they’re able to counter those things with real facts and with lived experiences,” he said.