I wrote this post a while ago. Or, shall I say, I’m writing to post sometime in the future because unfortunately it will be timely again.
The nation is again saddened by the shooting massacre in _________. I’m not sure a person can ever become callous to learning of a reckless, preventable shooting spree resulting in the premature end to many lives. This act of rage and violence follows a pattern we know all too well: the shooter is a young man who felt like an outsider his whole life and maybe was recently humiliated in some manner. Maybe he is a military veteran. He was taunted. He had few friends. He became enraged because of an altercation with (check one: family member, former school mate, employee, or employer). The media wants to know, not if, but what signs of mental illness did he display, and when?
Likely, his past history of mental illness was either never addressed effectively because his parents / loved ones couldn’t commit him against his will because by the time it was recognized that he was seriously ill, he was over eighteen, or his parents / loved ones didn’t address his behaviors because of the stigma around mental illness. But a few who knew him— former schoolmates or coworkers, because he had few friends, mention something about him was “different.” He managed to get his hands on weaponry that made him falsely feel empowered. Along with body armor, he carried an AR-15 style assault rifle, the same weapon used in June 2013 by the Santa Monica killer and in December 2012 in Newtown. On his person, he may have had a handgun and additional magazines. Certainly, he had more than one weapon on him.
Is that about right?
As I write this on a random summer day, I know there are mothers whose adult child has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, who are, on the day this is published and the weeks that follow, cringing. There are thousands of mothers both uncomfortable and well versed in this conversation about mental illness. I know because this is what they have told me. When these killing sprees occur, society wants to assign blame and often turn to the parents. They ask, “Why didn’t the parents / loved ones do something?”
Parents of adult children diagnosed with serious mental illness cringe because those who do not understand mental illness will look upon them and say, “Aren’t you afraid your mentally ill child will hurt you?”
Because our society conflates mental illness and violence, perpetuating the myth that a mental illness diagnosis indicates , no, predetermines that a person is more likely to commit a violent act. But violent tendencies occur in people in equal rates whether diagnosed with a serious mental illness or not. Statistically, according to NIMH, most violence inflicted by a mentally ill person is self-harm, that is, not perpetrated on others. And yet, after every mass shooting, media and society rub mental illness and violence together, contributing to the frothy stigma damaging to those living with mental illness and arguably to our society as a whole.
Still, other parents whose children live with serious mental illness cringe because they have witnessed erratic behavior associated with certain mental illness crisis, such as psychotic episodes that include delusional thinking. These parents, more than anyone, know how difficult it is to get an adult person committed and adequately treated before they do become dangerous, most usually to themselves. These parents also know how our health care system makes it challenging to keep them in for full treatment. These parents also cringe because they know when their child is psychotic and on the street, there is a risk law enforcement will misconstrue their behavior and their mentally unstable child will either be shot or land in jail while still in a psychotic state. And it’s not like they’ll receive adequate treatment in jail either.
These parents include Kerry, the mother who called the university to inform the counseling center that her son had gone off his medication, was drinking heavily, and had smashed everything in his dorm room. Kerry warned the school hoping to get support. Instead she was told, “Our hands are tied.” Then they told her, that yes they know his history, that he may have gone off his meds, that he may be wandering about not knowing where he is but he hasn’t failed his classes yet and we can’t (or won’t) prove he is a danger to himself or others. Even though the last time this happened, he almost perished from alcohol poisoning and hypothermia.
The mental illness stigma circles around the misperception that a person diagnosed with mental illness is dangerous to everyone around him, and that there is no hope for a person diagnosed with mental illness. But there is hope unless the stigma impedes loved ones and the ill person from accepting the illness and seeking effective long-range treatment. Stigma is a barrier to treatment.
In the many hours of the news cycle ahead of us, and days and weeks ahead, one wonders if it is possible to have a real discussions about the confluence of factors leading to gun violence and other- separate conversations about the many possible causes and treatments for mental illness, and recognize the connecting point between the two are but a pinpoint that can be made even finer with more accurate dialogue.
As always, we welcome your comments.