On Wednesday January 18, a 15-year-old student opened fire against his classmates and teacher in a private school in the city of Monterrey, in the north of Mexico. The incident happened around 8 am. After wounding four, the student pointed the gun toward his head and fired one last shot. He was declared dead in a hospital a few hours later.
As the news began to spread, so did a video taken from a surveillance camera placed inside the classroom. Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the head of National Security, tweeted: “I’ve instructed that the images that circulated on digital platforms and the media be verified, and that the victims’ dignity is respected.”
However, the gunman’s identity (also a teenager) was handled differently: soon it became widely known that the student’s name was Federico Guevara and that the gun belonged to his father.
In a news conference following the attack, Nuevo León’s security spokesman Aldo Fasci, said that Federico had psychological problems and was receiving treatment for depression. “We need to be more careful with our children,” he added, “They have access to everything through social networks these days. This is undoubtedly a product of what he saw in social networks that happened in other countries.”
Often the Spanish word for “crazy” is enough to dismiss talk about mental health.
Later that night, governor Jaime Rodríguez also gave a press conference. Although visibly shaken, he did not add much information: after wondering out loud what the cause of the attack could have been, he urged families to “help and cooperate with the teachers” to identify children who might be having similar problems. “The parents’ responsibility will never be replaced by any public policy, program or government’s action,” he said.
President Enrique Peña Nieto chimed in: “Events like this are beyond our understanding,” he said. “What happens inside classrooms is a concern that transcends teachers and directives: it’s in our hands […] to work on our family values so that a tragedy like this one never happens again.”
That morning, before learning the news on Facebook, I felt overwhelmed by my own personal misfortunes, infinitely small in comparison.
My dog was dying.
Work-related papers formed a pile on my desk— I just never seem to get things done. I wondered when I fell behind. When did I lose the ability to sleep all the way through the night, have breakfast, work out, do my job and still come home with the feeling that nothing had changed? I asked myself: when did I start living my life as if I were in a permanent state of emergency?
In May of last year I was diagnosed with severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD by a psychiatrist, following a series of panic attacks that left me feeling both exhausted and confused. Although it seemed like an ugly truth, in the moment the diagnosis felt like the starting point towards finally understanding what was “wrong” with me.
Getting treatment is often perceived as an extreme measure in Mexico —we have a reputation of being cheerful people, as well as resilient.
At first, I told no one. I remember hearing my grandmother talk about her sister, who had schizophrenia and actively engaged in conversations with people no one else could see. “Estaba loca,” my grandmother says of her sister. Often the Spanish word for “crazy” is enough to dismiss talk about mental health.
Getting help, a euphemism for treatment, is often perceived as an extreme measure in Mexico —we have a reputation of being cheerful people, as well as resilient. The fact that drugs are now a more common treatment for mental illnesses than therapy is a relatively recent change, seldom talked about. I do believe that chemical imbalances in the brain can and should be treated by specific drugs, but I also know that their efficacy (specifically compared to other treatment methods like psychotherapy and other complementary approaches) has yet to be determined.
I’m still unsure of why or when I became sick. I speak of a “sickness” because the other words (depressed, anxious and stressed) —the ones that became attached to me as if they were labels— never seemed to fit entirely. Perhaps what happened to me is something different, something that falls more into the category of “trauma.” Seven years ago I was robbed inside my house, held at gunpoint and raped by four men during a wave of similar crimes in southern Mexico City. Sometimes I wonder if I can really trace the origin of my “severe depression/GAD/PTSD” to this event, or if I had a melancholic disposition since I was a teenager.
Of course, this is a matter that I don’t discuss.
Although school shootings are rare in Mexico, the violence that surrounds the January 18 incident is widespread. In 2006, the Mexican government declared a war on drug trafficking syndicates that put the military on the streets and dismantled some of the most powerful cartels, fragmenting them into smaller criminal groups. The death toll has been estimated to be greater than 120,000, not including the missing, the “desaparecidos” —people whose families still search for them even though their whereabouts are unknown, and whose destinies are likely linked to the war.
“Depression” is the cause, never the symptom, of a massacre such as the one in Monterrey.
Violence, however, is still perceived as part of the personal psyche: a dark temper that has clear limits within the individual mind. The causes are to be found in video games, loud music, the TV, and social networks. “Depression” is seen as the cause, never the symptom, of a massacre such as the one in Monterrey. Of the national public health budget in Mexico, only about 2% is allocated to treat mental illnesses. The stigma applies both to the sick and the neurodiverse: a word like “depression” serves as an umbrella term for anything that can go wrong within a person’s mind.
Thinking of depression as a cultural and social phenomenon rather than a medical disease is an alternative that has been suggested by scholars who study the public dimension of feelings. In her book, Depression. A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich writes: “What if depression, in the Americas, at least, could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, legal exclusion, and everyday segregation and isolation that haunt all of our lives, rather than to be biochemical imbalances?”
“What if depression, in the Americas, at least, could be traced to histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery?”
To me it seems that blaming a tragedy like the one in Monterrey on “depression” is a way of using stereotypes and stigma to erase a reality that is far more complex. When we say “It’s in our hands to work on our family values” or that “Children having similar problems need to be identified by parents and teachers,” or when we say that the attack was “undoubtedly” the product of social media, what are we saying? And what are we silencing? Who are we holding accountable?
As long as mental illnesses are seen as a private matter (and the stigma around them continues to silence conversations about mental health) we run the risk of criminalizing young adults and their families, ignoring the fact that depression, as a public feeling, may be the reflection of the ten or so years of violence that Mexican society has experienced on a daily basis. It becomes a personal problem: the problem of a teenager who also committed suicide and who can no longer speak for himself.
The way the media is handling the shooting in Monterrey in connection to mental health is enough to raise concern. At stake is not only the risk of victim blaming, something I feel should be handled with care, but also a matter of national importance: gun control. While the subject of gun control might be less of an issue in Mexico than in the United States, it’s still a pressing matter, especially in light of the war. The “preventive” measures announced by the Secretary of Public Education involve raising surveillance in schools by searching schoolbags, which is (to say the least) disturbing: in this country such safety measures are frequently paired with the violation of individual rights and, at least to me, they justify the growth of the kind of hyper-vigilance that paves the way for a totalitarian state.
As long as mental illnesses are seen as a private matter we run the risk of criminalizing young adults and their families.
The question of what makes a teenager kill may never be fully answered. Was it indeed depression? Was it because he grew up in one of the most violent countries in the world during a time of war? Was he bullied at school? Suffering quietly until he decided to do something about it? Were his parents not attentive enough?
In my Facebook feed an acquaintance shares the news and writes: “I understand that depression is one of the key aspects of this case, but what I don’t understand is the violence inflicted upon the others.” I wonder if she thinks about the small acts of violence that are randomly inflicted upon us all, every single day, sometimes invisibly, just because we are women, or because our skin is not white, because we are Mexican, citizens of the “Third World” or because we “exaggerate” when we talk about certain things. We’re crazy. Maybe when she’s feeling sad, she shakes her head and thinks she just woke up feeling blue.