[edited at 12.24 pm to correct statistic on assault and mental illness – it should read ASSAULT not kill. ]
Friday’s tragedy in Sandy Hook Conneticut was truly horrific. The loss of those dear little children and their dedicated teachers was so utterly unnecessary and completely inexcusable. My heart breaks for the families who have lost their children, daughters, mothers and wives. I cannot even begin to fathom the pain and sadness they must feel. And I ache too for the little children who didn’t die – those that will now associate primary school – a place of excitement, friendship and fun – with death and horror for the rest of their lives.
As for the United States’ bizarre attitude towards guns – it just leaves me speechless. A humane society does not tolerate such murderous action. Nor does it tolerate members of the public purchasing and keeping assault weapons used by the military as part of their “gun collection”.
But gun violence is not what I want to talk about. One aspect of the public conversation regarding Adam Lanza and his hideous behaviour that has been gathering momentum since Friday is the issue of mental illness. And trust me – this isn’t going to be one of those conversations where I shed tears whilst imploring you to consider Lanza as a victim. No, no, no – not at all.
From the moment the media started their reporting on Friday’s horror, an increasingly wide spectrum of people have commented on Lanza’s mental health. People who went to primary school with him, people who never spoke to him in high school but just knew, people who lived on the same street, the man who mowed his mother’s lawn. They all had something to say about Lanza’s mental health and the media was quick to report their uninformed opinions.
Just this morning, the Washington Post published an extract from a parent’s story about her son’s “mental illness” (she actually went on to write that doctors had NOT been able to diagnose her son and were thus failing to come up with any solutions – umm – that might mean he ISN’T mentally ill – just bloody awful) and the terrible danger he poses to his family and the wider community. Readers’ responses – “we shouldn’t let the mentally ill walk our streets!” “they should be locked away for ever!” “they are a permanent danger to us and should be drugged for life!”.
Really? Really? You want to reopen the large, terrifying and abusive institutions of yesteryear that were used as tools of social control – the ones where some families tucked away their gay son, intellectually disabled daughter, or nephew with Down’s Sydrome, and thousands of people suffered lives of horror and abuse?
To those people who feel so comfortable expressing their opinions on mental illness I say, have you really stopped to think who you are talking about? Have you given even a moment’s thought to the large group in our society you are tarring with the same brush as that you are using on a mass murderer?!
Are you talking about your aunt who had terrible postnatal depression? Or would you be talking about your father who has lived with depression for the last 30 years? Are you thinking about your cousin who – along with his family’s constant support (but clearly not yours) – has struggled to carve out a life of meaning and happiness alongside his schizophrenia? Or perhaps you are thinking about your grandmother, who after living with terrible trauma as a child in a war torn country, has such awful anxiety she cannot leave the house? What about your neighbour with bipolar – she shops compulsively, throws wonderful parties, organises your local community events and then when the depressive side of her illness strikes, drinks too much wine and can barely move for a week.
Oh I know! Are you talking about your college roommate who smoked too much dope with you at too many parties and now lives with permanent brain damage?
Are these the people you are talking about? Are these the people you want to be drugged for life? Locked away? Not allowed to live amongst us? Because these are the vast – vast majority of people with mental illness. And you – with your angry words and misinformed opinions about mental illness – are working to increase their social exclusion and life-debilitating stigmatisation.
Do you know how many people with a severe mental illness ASSAULT another person – 0.01%. Do you know how many people with a severe mental illness kill themselves – 10%. Yep – if one of those “mentally ill” people work in your office or live on your street they are MUCH more likely to kill themselves than you.
But guess what – there are very real and very successful ways of treating severe mental illness – and it starts with acknowledging that mental illness can affect all of us and just like when we are diagnosed with diabetes or cancer, we are all worthy of compassionate and respectful care when we are sick.
Do you think a mother and father are likely to seek early intervention for their son when he’s decorating his bedroom with aluminium foil if they know Cousin Dave and Aunt Linda – and the rest of the folk on the block – think like the bigots who wrote into the Washington Post? Who believe whole heartedly in the “mentally ill” line trotted out by the media and those who do not want the status quo challenged?
Do you think the government and those designing public policy are going to be encouraged to put the time, effort and funds required into providing best practice health care for those living with mental illness when the loudest voices demand such backward thinking rubbish as the appropriate solution to community needs?
Now, don’t get me wrong – if a person with a severe mental illness kills another person – or a classroom of children – that is horrific and society needs to be protected from that person. No argument about that.
But instead of sweeping that mental illness broom around so widely, let’s talk about those people who DO kill. Are they mentally ill? Not often. Are they ordinary people like you and I? Sometimes – especially given that over 80% of people who are murdered are murdered by somebody they know.
However – sometimes, these people who kill are just horrible, broken, evil people who do not think like you and I. This does NOT make them mentally ill. This makes them horrible, broken and evil.
The roots of much of their behaviour may be found in appalling parenting, the suffering of sexual or physical abuse as children, the experience of severe neglect, war or torture – and their current condition is often summed up as a “personality disorder”. When they’re really dreadful, we like “psychopath”.
To the majority of mental health workers – and this is reflected in current best practice regarding the admission of these people to psychiatric facilities – a personality disorder is not a real mental illnesses – it is the consequence of a series of events that results in people growing up to be seriously nasty.
And it’s not something that can be treated with the talking therapies or medication. These people careen around our community in destructive and terrifying ways and when or if they eventually hurt someone – then we process them through the justice system, and lock them up. Just like we do with any other member of the community.
We don’t lock people up just in case. To those who wrote in to the Washington Post – do you want to be locked up just in case you do something awful one day?
Why are we so reticent to talk about bad people? Are we hopeful that by pretending they are ill, we can better control them? Has our faith in the magic of modern, pharmacologically dependent medicine rendered us blind to the fact that not everything has a simple biological answer?
When we refuse to talk about some people being bad and insist on describing their atrocious behaviour as “mentally ill” we stigmatise people who live with real mental illness. We lose the ability to protect our community when we kid ourselves like this. We become incapable of putting in place real strategies of prevention because we are too busy pointing the finger at a group of citizens who are already MUCH more likely to suffer violence than we are.
When we scream “We need to be protected from the mentally ill!” we are ignoring the fact that Lanza killed 27 innocent people – 20 of them dear little children – with the guns bought by his supposedly mentally healthy mother.
People are incredibly complex beings who are shaped by so many forces – their genes, their time in the womb, the manner in which they were parented, their nutrition, the neighbourhood they grew up in, the access they had to education, employment, housing, and healthcare, the pollution in the air.
Sometimes they turn out bad. They turn out violent, impulsive, cruel, thoughtless, manipulative and cold. They are not the kind of folks you want living next door.
But thankfully, most of the time, despite everything people endure throughout life, they turn out loving, considerate, mostly cheerful and forward focused.
Until we receive further information, let’s talk about BAD people and how best to prevent THEM from acting upon their violent and antisocial impulses. Let’s demand they accept responsibility for their behaviour, not write it off as an illness we haven’t yet found the cure for. Let’s talk about how best to protect our society – our children – from them.
Let’s not have a “mental illness” witch hunt.