This is actually a revision to a post i first wrote back in 2007, but it's still just as pertinent (and pretty much unlearned) today as it was then and always has been... Also, to be clear, it's going to take a lot of things to help prevent the now seemingly constant shootings we have here, including smart and serious gun control laws being enforced, better mental health awareness and parity, and perhaps even looking at our culture as a whole. I am only addressing that which has directly affected my life.
This post is about an issue near and dear to my heart as well as important in the wake of the Connecticut, Portland, and Aurora shootings, as well as all the other recent instances of mass shootings and suicides recently.
Often the first reaction in the wake of such incidences is shock; shock that it happened, and shock that the person could do what they did. But after all the surrounding knowledge comes to light, it’s really not that surprising that it happened or that the person in question could do it. Such is mental illness; only visible when we choose to see it.
I am lucky in regards to the topic of mental illness. Well, I guess some might say not that lucky, but I consider myself lucky. I grew up in a house where there was mental illness. Mental illness runs on my mother’s side of the family; her grandmother had it, her father and a few of her uncles had dealt with it, including one suicide; my mother grappled with and still occasionally deals with major depression, and my brother is bipolar.
So in my house, mental illness never had the stigma it has in public. To us, it was just another thing, a fact of life. My parents and our extended family members always watched all of us kids and if any of us showed the signs of it (and there are always signs), they got us treatment. It was never taboo to talk about; it was dinner-table-worthy conversation. Because of this lack of stigma, and in spite of rough going sometimes, mental illness has never been allowed to take over any generation of us; openness has probably literally preserved my family.
Not knowing enough about mental illness, which enables the perpetuation of the stigma, is something that until we deal it as a society, incidences like Connecticut, Portland, and Aurora will keep on happening. It’s almost as if society deplores it when something tragic happens, but not enough to truly deal with the core issue; it’s as if the idea of mainstreaming the topic of mental illness and working to destroy the stigma is a worse scenario than periodically dealing with these tragedies. How quickly we forget that we could have done more to prevent them.
To be sure, I know there are no easy remedies or ways to deal with mental illness. In my brother’s case, though he was treated during his teens, once he was out of my parent’s purview, he rarely sought treatment and instead sank into drug and alcohol addiction, a very common remedy for people dealing with mental illness (even those unaware they have one.) But because he always knew in the back of his mind that he did have bipolar disorder, he periodically did seek treatment. Eventually, a few stormy years later, he summoned all his inner strength and started getting regular treatment; during its course, he also is now a recovering addict, and is successfully getting on with his life.
I wish the other major brush with mental illness in my life had as happy an ending. My very first boyfriend, my first love, was bipolar as well; actually, he and I went out way back when I was 16 and his illness did not manifest until afterward. We managed to retain our close friendship even after our breakup; we had a very tight group of six of us who were the best of the best of friends; he was one of them. About a year after we broke up (when he was 18), I started noticing some of the signs in him; many mental illnesses tend to manifest in the late teens and early twenties. I was not terribly close to his parents, but I told our friends; they mostly brushed it off as perhaps me just being a bit of a vengeful ex. This was the first point in my life that the topic of mental illness was broached outside of my family; I was stunned to see just how socially unacceptable it was, especially when we were talking about one of our closest friends.
Throughout the ensuing years, I periodically mentioned it as he showed more symptoms, but most of the time it fell on deaf ears. It was heartbreaking for me (and my sister who was also close friends with him), to watch him slowly disintegrate into the fog that is mental illness without being able to do much for him. As many in his situation do, he became dependent on alcohol, and wandered between school and assorted jobs. Some of our common friends began to see the enormity of his problems, and I know everyone tried to counsel him in some way or at the very least be there for him in support, but he never seemed to stay in one place for long. And after many years of battling his illness, in February 2003 he took his parents hostage to gain access to a gun (they escaped), used a fake explosive that required the evacuation of the surrounding area, and after a 12 hour standoff with the SWAT team and an emotional hours-long attempt by another close friend to talk him down, he took his own life.
When I looked at his father after the funeral, I knew he knew, and we spoke about it; there had been an incident a few years before that had gotten his family’s attention, but even when you know a lot about mental illness, it’s hard to deal with; baptism by fire is the most difficult initiation of them all. His family did the best they could with the limited time they had left with him.
I still feel an enormous amount of guilt – I could have done more – and I don’t suppose that I will ever be able to completely reconcile that feeling within myself. However, I do know that guilt and searching for something or someone to blame are our natural reaction in trying to make sense of the insensible. I also know that we can’t let these things consume us; we need to be proactive in changing the way we deal with mental illness. Connecticut is yet another wake-up call in a very long line of wake-up calls.
There is a high correlation between substance abuse and mental illness; there is also a high correlation between homelessness and mental illness; both of these are huge issues that we still have not learned how to deal with in this country. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of people aged 15 to 24 - the 3rd leading cause! And now we have Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are coming home to sub par and inadequate treatment for mental illnesses such as PTSD. We are a nation who desperately, NOW, needs to come out of its box and confront this issue head on. Connecticut, Portland, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Jared Loughner, Andrea Yates, John Hinckley, Northern Illinois University and the many other incidences, including the many daily suicides in this country, we could have seen them coming. People nearing a breaking point exhibit “tells;” we as a society are just ignorant of them. And we need not be.
We need to do more as a society to understand mental illness. We need to do more as a society to give treatment for mental illness parity with regular health care. We need to pour more research into this treatment; one of the biggest complaints is that some of the medications have such unbearable side effects that many times, people quit taking them and go back to whatever substance had become their crutch. We need to not treat mental illness as something shameful; that shame alone prevents so many people from seeking help as well as stops possibly concerned friends and family members, co-workers, fellow students and teachers from broaching the subject with the person or their family. We need to learn the signs so we can be a source of support for those we know who might be going through it; they need to know that it’s ok, they’re not alone, there is help. We need to make better avenues available for families that are dealing with hard cases of mental illness and are at their wit's end. We need to stop using words such as “psycho” and “deranged” about people suffering with mental illness – they only serve to feed the stigma. Mental illness is not crazy; it’s just another illness like all the rest. We need to wake up America, and realize that there are things we can do to try to help prevent many tragedies that take place today.
Some helpful links:
As you can probably tell, this is an issue that is near and dear to me, as well as something I feel very passionately about. If I were ever in the position to add the title "philanthropist" to a description of me, mental health awareness would be my pet cause. For now, other than being vocal on a local level, this column is my forum to send out my call. So let’s wake up! This column is dedicated to James (Oct 1968- Feb 2003) and to Scott who is successfully plugging along...