Christina Green was born on September 11, 2001 and died January 9th, 2011 when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on Congresswoman Danielle Gifford in a mall in Tucson, Arizona. Five others were killed and 14 injured. You probably know that. If you’ve paid a lot of attention you also know that the Congressman is married to an astronaut and has an extensive collection of glocks. You also probably know that this story has suddenly become about safeguarding society from the dangers of the mentally ill instead of addressing issues regarding the culture of violence that is crippling America.
On January 16th, CBS reporter Bob Schaffer asked “America’s Mayor” Rudolph Giuliani why this tragedy hadn’t brought the US together in the same way September 11th did. It strikes me that there is a very real danger that this tragedy will do just that. In the wake of tragedies we look for simple answers to complex questions and the States tend to look for people to arrest en masse.
Good folks all across the States are making the focus of this debate that we need to make it easier to institutionalize the mentally ill. This time the mentally ill are the shadowy threat to society.
A common misconception about mental illness is that the mentally ill have a defined predilection toward violence. This misconception is fed by the fact that every time we have a large scale discussion on mental illness it is prompted by one of the rare occasions where the mentally ill act violently towards someone other than themselves.
This idea can be corrected by doing some simple research. Pretty much any scientific study done on people suffering from mentally illness shows that they are more likely to hurt themselves then others and are no more prone to violent action than anyone else. Yet the media doesn’t do much to correct these stereotypes. Violent acts are described as psychotic. The term psychotic is constantly misused, as most people that suffer psychosis, (hallucinations and hearing voices) don’t commit violent crimes. Being psychopathic and psychotics are totally different things. A psychopath has symptoms of extreme narcissism, hatred, lack of empathy, alienation but isn’t suffering from any clinically treatable mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This societal myth has convinced many to fear the mentally ill and many people suffering from mental illness to fear themselves.*
In past generations when the mentally ill were abused in asylums, lobotomized and tortured, hiding your disease was a way of maintaining what little life your illness hadn’t taken away from you.
Recently I received an email from a 60 year old mother of a friend of mine. She confessed that she had hidden her depression from her own family. Even her husband didn’t know such was the weight of her shame. Imagine hiding for your entire life because you were scared of what others might think of you, even what your family might think. You might say that things have changed and wouldn’t happen in our day.
I have a friend who is almost 25 and hasn’t told her parents about her bouts of mental illness. Since Tucson she has spent a lot of her time reading articles about it, wondering what the words meant for her. Obsessively searching, hoping to find that society’s beliefs didn’t mimic her fears. Finding Facebook statuses with phrases like: “The Tucson shooter should have just killed himself,” and “Fucking nutcases need to be in the loony bin.” Reading articles where unidentified parents expressed the worry that their own children would follow Loughner.
2/3’s of people suffering from mental illness don’t get treatment due to stigma.
She is not in the minority.
On September 11th there wasn’t a dramatic reassessment of the US policies in the Middle East that created the hatred that made people want to attack America. Instead Bush focused on the surface of the issue and rallied around the idea of finding and killing the terrorists. Which doesn’t address the root of the problem and in fact increased the sense of alienation the Islamic world feels towards the West.
The same thing is happening now. Rather than attempt to rebuild the shattered foundations of our mental health system, we are assuming the system will fail to help these people deal with their problems before it reaches the point when they have to be institutionalized. I repeat we are assuming that failure is the only possible result.
There does come a time when society has to step in. We can’t force a person to take their medication when they need it. There comes a time when a person is no longer responsible for their own actions and needs to be safeguarded against themselves. I’m just saying that this isn’t what the debate about mental illness should center around.
Instead of addressing the root of the issue, we are looking to provide a surface safety so that we can stop thinking about it. And we are making it worse by propagating stereotypes in our search for safety and making it harder for people like my friend.
And why? Because it was politically expedient for ring wingers to change what this debate was about because no one wants to talk about gun control and the question of who actually needs to own a glock. Of why Christina was killed by dangerous weapons that are made available to basically anyone who wants them.
But again I’m moving away from the point, which isn’t some clever analogy comparing Tucson to September 11th or a discussion about gun control.
The point is that every time the media focuses on mental illness awareness it is as a result of the rare case when a mentally ill person hurts someone other then themselves. Which gives the impression to the general public that the mental ill are violent by nature and as such reinforces negative stereotypes even when trying to dispel them.
It matters how you open a discussion especially when you always open it the same way.
The hard truth is that we do need to talk about violence and the mentally ill. But it’s the violence they enact towards themselves that needs discussion and as a society we aren’t trained to talk about suicide. Journalists can cover murders, they can’t cover suicides.
Right now suicide is the leading cause of violent death, not homicide. 4,000 people die of suicide every year in Canada, 32,000 in the United States. The silence comes both before and after suicide and it’s the silence before that we need to deal with most.
I never learned anything about mental illness in school from junior high school through to the end of University.
My education has been watching my friend’s collapse, chase drug addictions and commit suicide. Watching from the sidelines, when they wound up in the terrible place they had no understanding of and chose to run as fast as they could away from the person in the mirror. I only was able to understand them when it was my turn to run as fast as I could until the people in my life helped me look in the mirror and accept what I saw.
Now we are back in that crucial moment that has come a thousand times and passed us by a thousand times. Are we willing to stop being polite and actually talk about the epidemic that is crippling us behind closed doors? We need to provide education to our children when they are going through puberty and experiencing those first changes. When they are in high school and university when most mental illnesses set in. We need to provide counseling to those who need it whether they can afford it or not. We can’t simply accept that the system will fail.
We can’t be afraid to look in the mirror.
There isn’t one easy solution. But we have to try to take those small excruciatingly slow steps in the right direction. I can’t accept failure as a given, not when I know that means. The system is not an animate thing, but a collection of voices that include our own. We can change it.
The mother of my friend is 60 and still dealing with the stigma of mental illness that afflicted her generation. A friend of mine is 25 and scared to tell the people she loves about her illness. In a few years I’ll have children and I don’t want them to feel the shame that we do. I want them to know that my love isn’t contingent on them being happy. Please don’t wait for the next tragedy to talk about mental illness.
We can’t make it perfect, but we can make it better.
*Information obtained from article in the Globe and Mail by Bob Wilkerson.