Dec 14, 2012

After todays tragedy: some words on mental illness

Regarding today's tragedy, some key points I want to drive home--

  • Today's horrible event literally makes me nauseated.
  • Mental illness carries a stigma that deters some from getting help.
  • Guns shouldn't be banned in their entirety.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people. And not stable ones.

I want to preface by saying that I work with children for a living and there's nothing about today that doesn't make my heart ache.  I want to say that I am heartbroken not only for those beautiful little lives lost, but also for those children who endured that trauma and the lasting effects it will have on them.   Anyone reading this knows my dedication is to children. 

Having said that, I also want to talk about mental illness--and the stigma that this country has on it and the difficulty that stigma makes for others to get help for those in need and for those in need to recognize the importance of getting help.   I don't know the details about the shooter(s) involved today, and though there's lots of speculation I don't think anyone else quite does yet either--but today I heard a newscaster say that the man was most likely "mentally defective" and it enraged me.  If I could have come through the television (I so rarely watch) at that man, I would have.  I think that's partially coming from a family where I deal with mental illness on a very personal level, but that's also working with children who have mental illness also.  Mental illness is very real and prominent.  It varies in seriousness.  The media is known for painting a picture of what  'a risk' mentally ill individuals are and how hopeless 'treating them' are.  They rarely encourage you to reach out to those in need.

There are varying degrees of mental illness.  There are new diagnoses being added all the time.  They're 'renaming' and 'rearranging' and 'listing symptoms' all the time.  Think about it, right now if your doctor told you that you had an anxiety disorder, you certainly wouldn't embrace it, and even less often would share it with your friends over a lunch date.   That makes seeking treatment less likely--it's not a widely discussed topic and no one 'wants' to need help.  It's not like a sports injury or diabetes.  

Continuing with my opinion:  I understand that from a parent view (or those against guns), guns propelled this destructive tragedy.    But guns don't kill, people kill people.  And stability of a person has a whole lot of effect on the likeliness that someone would use that in the wrong way.  If we're talking about control, we need to talk about controlling those with questionable stability access to guns, not limiting those who use them for sport or hobby.  We need to talk about more productivity when talking about mental illness because it is common, very very common.  1 in 17 according to the NIMH and that's probably slightly outdated statistics.  In addition that's really encompassing the people willing to talk about it.  And I'm doubting that this shooter was stable or that his mental illness went without signs or symptoms. 

For those of you who are parents-- I feel for you.  I couldn't picture sending my kid to school in the foreseeable future.   And I don't know how you encourage them that their school is a safe place.  School employees and educators, I can't imagine how you wouldn't have apprehension.  As I'd mention before, I've worked with medicated severely mentally ill youth whose "hit list" I've wound up on--but there's always been signs, someone to assist me, someone to observe.  Don't stay silent when you see cries for help.  Don't stay silent when you're gut tells you something.  Err on the side of caution.

And kiss your babies.  And make room for one at your dinner table who is so patiently waiting for kisses too!


  1. Coming from a country where we responded to a similar shooting by banning the possession of handguns, I will never quite understand how your country weighs the right of it's adult citizens to shoot handguns for a living, against the right of it's children to be safe from school shootings, and chooses in favour of the sports people.

    I'm not even saying that I think it's wrong. It's just a completely alien mindset/culture to me.

    I agree with you about the newscaster talking about the guy being 'mentally defective' though. I think it doubly annoys me when people say things like that because I then feel bad at my instinct being to mentally stick up for the person who did something so bad.

    We really do need to get more people talking about mental illness in a more productive way though. If that guy is sick, at some point his illness was probably only as severe as the psychological equivalent of a bad cold. If it became the norm for people to feel comfortable seeking treatment at that stage, it might prevent people getting so sick that they develop the psychological equivalent of stage four lymphoma, and then go and kill themselves or other people.

    1. I personally don't own any guns, but I don't necessarily hate them either. I'm indifferent. I just know that it's about the individual-- I am in no way sticking up for anyone, just stating that it's rare that a mental illness goes without visible symptoms, especially to someone who knows them well.

    2. I don't know, I was ill for years and didn't get help because people kept telling me that I wasn't ill. I've now been diagnosed by a psychiatrist and some people still keep insisting that I don't have what I've been diagnosed with. And I'm far from the only person I know who's been in this position. There are lot of misconceptions about what mental illness actually looks like.

  2. It is so refreshing to read an opinion such as yours. I am still in school as a psych major. I don't know exactly what path I want to take once I graduate, which is quickly approaching, but I do know I want to make a difference and help people. Very similar to what your mindset seems to be.

    It breaks my heart that tragedies such as these continue to occur. But even more so that the true weight mental illness carries is still going ignored and too few people wish to help mend the true problem at hand.

    Thank you, so much for writing this.

    1. Thank YOU so much for understanding the need for change.

  3. There was definitely mental illness at work here. I work with children every day, also, and I see some kids that need help, but one of the sad realities is that diagnosing mental illness is both difficult and expensive, and parents often don't want to admit there's a problem, like you said, the stigma. I wish I knew the answers.