A Few Words on Mental Illness (And Why We MUST Stop Ignoring It)

It is only appropriate, I think, to preface this post with my deepest sympathy for those affected by the horrific tragedy this past week in Connecticut. I am sure the prayers of those who pray and the best wishes of those who do not are with each and every one of you.

That being said, I feel compelled by the frequency of such horrible shootings to discuss something that I fear is perpetually under-discussed when terrible things like this (and Columbine, and the Dark Knight Rises tragedy, etc) happen. Everyone jumps to the conclusion that it’s time to talk about gun laws, squabbling over whether the availability of guns helps or hinders when violent acts like this take place. But that is overlooking the one, glaring cause that every single incident like this has in common: these people are/were not  mentally and psychologically healthy.

It happens every time. There’s a brief discussion about the warning signs, about how people should have noticed, or maybe couldn’t have noticed. But the fact of it is, mental illness makes people uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about it, don’t like to admit that the people we know (our sons and daughters, our friends, our teachers) could very well be sick. There has always been a stigma associated with mental illness, stemming back to the days when “insane” family members were locked up, hidden away, or lobotomized. Nowadays it seems the gut reaction is just to do what we can to ignore the problem, to pretend that someone who needs help for the inner workings of their mind which have somehow gone awry is actually just “a little eccentric,”  or “overly stressed.”

I’m not saying we need to overreact and think that everyone around us is insane. I’m saying we need to stop being afraid to talk about things like anorexia or schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. We need to educate ourselves and our children about the various mental disorders that exist so that we stop being afraid to discuss it when someone we know starts acting in ways that concern us.

I’ve witnessed it myself. A friend of mine is very ill, but that friend’s family utterly refuses to help them and I suspect it stems at least partly from the embarrassment and shame that accompanies admitting that your child is suffering from mental illness, from a disease that no one can see but which is nevertheless festering and preparing to create a disaster, one way or another. Instead, they’d prefer to go on pretending that things will just get better on their own, rather than deal with sending the person somewhere that they can start to get better. The thing is, people see it differently because it’s dealing with the mind (which we can’t see) rather than the body.  But it’s just another way of being sick, even if it is sometimes much more disturbing. So why the shame about getting treated for just another health problem?

I’m not saying drugs would have prevented every disaster. I’m not even advocating drugs. I’m saying that some of these people need counseling, need help, perhaps even need to be put in a retreat for a while to sort out their problems. If caught early enough, the problems that lead people to such terrible acts can be addressed. It won’t, I’m sure, prevent every single instance, but it will certainly be a step in the right direction. Because the reality is, someone who has reached the mental state where such an act of violence becomes possible is going to commit that act, whether they can get conventional weapons easily or have to get more creative. The issue stems from the individuals themselves, and the failure of the people who were close to them to either recognize or accept the signs that their loved one was not well.

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