[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.

what we should be talking about

15 thoughts on “what we should be talking about

  • December 17, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Thank you.

  • December 17, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Well said. However, remember that it is the squeaky wheels on TV that get the most notice, not most of us – just like you – who aren’t spouting quick opinions for the world to hear but are shocked and terrified and distraught and also realistic about the very problems you’ve discussed.

    I think most of us who care deeply for our families and the welfare of others know the difference between mental illness and evil brokenness. It is just shock right now that brings up gun laws and the proper treatment available for those who need it.

    I believe the majority of us who take good care of our families know that much of the current violence stems initially from parenting. Putting your child’s welfare FIRST and diligently watching them grow, learn, rest, eat well, learn to work at home with chores, and monitoring their activities and what they are allowed to see on television and computers age appropriately is the very first line of parenting for a good and productive citizen. If that diligence falls into place, then the parent will likely spot the trouble spots and be able to carefully decipher other needs the child might have.

    I could say more, but mostly please know that we do know the difference even if we are at loss if not experienced how to help those with mental illness in everyday society. We are compassionate and caring, but, again, just shocked and devastated at the moment.


    • December 17, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      Oh Michele,

      I’m so sorry if I sounded as if I was suggesting that everyone in the US felt the same way – not at all, not at all. I sat horrorstruck on Saturday and read pages of comments in the New York Times that were so thoughtful and beautiful they made me cry. Please be assured that the papers here in Australia are full of the same stuff about mental illness etc. – and discrimination against those with a mental illness is alive and kicking down under.

      And we’re really good at pathologising bad behaviour here too – earlier this year a man tried to claim he suffered from Intermittent Eruption Disorder when he stopped at the peak of a huge bridge, dragged his five year old out of her car seat and threw her over the edge, killing her. He was in the process of separating from his wife. The judge, thankfully, dismissed his defence as laughable and he was jailed for murder.

      Not for one minute do I think such strangeness is unique to America and my use of the pronoun “you” was directed at the commenters from the Washington Post – it was never meant to be collective. As I wrote at the end – despite all that happens throughout life, the vast majority of us are caring people who look for happiness and love – I truly believe that.

  • December 17, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    You are so right and you said it so perfectly. I don’t feel I have the emotional energy to talk about this event, but I can’t help but think about how much goes back to appalling parenting as you mentioned. People treat their kids like animals and everyone turns a cheek and chalks it up to, “well we all have different styles of parenting.” Ugh.

    • December 17, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      So true – and bad parenting doesn’t have to come dressed up in poverty or lack of education either. Boy oh boy did I see some amazing examples of that when I was working at a large inner city public psych hospital. It is such a terribly sad sad event … just thinking about it has consumed all three of us here all weekend.

  • December 17, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Your comments on mental health awareness make me think of Sir John Kirwan. Yes, he was a legendary rugby player, but he received his knighthood for services to mental health. He spoke very publicly about his battles with depression and has fronted a campaign to raise awareness for the last decade.You can find the campaigns be searching “like minds like mine”

    • December 17, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      Thanks Amy – I will certainly look him up – I didn’t ever think I would be interested in pursuing mental health as a nursing career but I have to say that after my work and study over the last semester – preliminary as it was – I feel very drawn to it. Caring for people in a large, public, inner city psychiatric hospital was incredibly rewarding and certainly opened my eyes to my community.

  • December 17, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Referring to your phrase “the United States’ bizarre attitude toward guns” I think you would have to understand a little more about the history of our nation. We understand very well that ANY government can turn against its own people at any time. It was not that long ago in our very short history that our own farmers and shopkeepers had to take what arms they had and defend themselves and their families and their way of life. It would do no good to ban assault rifles as then only the “bad guys” (I am not speaking about the mentally ill or unstable here) would have them. This has been proven as our police have constantly been “outgunned” in many states by the gangs and drug cartels. My main concern, as a Master’s student in Psychology, is WHY this mass shooting is becoming so prolific in America? Many countries have liberal gun laws but do not have the same number (increasing!) that we do. What is it in our culture (education?/families?) that is leading to this type of aggression? Thank you for taking the time to write about this horrible tragedy with such thoughtfulness. Your medical training is obviously serving you well and I would be interested in any thoughts you have, not specifically about the guns, but about the culture that leads to these acts of aggression.

  • December 17, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Hello Lily,
    Thank you for your writings today.
    I actually feel most of us have times in our lives when we could be described as mentally ill.
    Where would these people draw the line with who is locked up and who isn’t?
    I know a lovely man who feels the need to wash his hands many more times during the day than most would consider normal. Is that a mental illness?
    What about a niece who is an epileptic but has successfully carved out a good career for herself or the friend who has just found out at 60 that she has suffered from dyslexia all her life and is only now able to read correctly.
    I am so saddened when I hear of these tragedies and I really don’t know how these things can be stopped.
    Maybe I’m old fashioned but I do believe there is too much violence on TV and the internet. It’s certainly not normal behaviour and I don’t think it does anyone any good to watch it.
    Thank you again for your thoughtful words.
    Blessings Gail

  • December 18, 2012 at 4:07 am

    Oh Lily, to think that our tragedy has caused you to grieve so far away! I won’t comment on your words about mental illness as I admit to being very uninformed, but expect that to change; however, I share your feelings about our strange fascination with guns. I don’t understand Tricia’s comment about our history teaching us that we need to defend ourselves against our government. That is insane! We are our government and we as a country need to put an end to this gun culture and stand up to the powerful, but evil, lobby in Washington that promotes guns.
    Thank you Lily for caring so about us all.

  • December 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Preach it, Lily. You’re right on the money, as usual.

    It’s particularly poignant for me today – I just got a solid diagnoses for my daughter. Not autistic as we thought for so long, but given the all-encompassing (and completely vague)”Severe Intellectual Disability.” How sad does this world have to be to lump my sweet, lovable Precious in with homicidal lunatics?

    Boo on the witch hunt.

  • December 18, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Well said. And thanks for what you posted on my Facebook page.

  • December 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Lily, Thank you so much for your beautiful and cogent words. You express very clearly the importance of understanding mental illness, and how prevalent and varied it is.

    I share concerns about our “gun culture” that has (to me) a ridiculous hold on so many people in the USA. While people cite many reasons for the need to own and carry weapons, I can see no excuse. Maybe someone might be able to explain a some guns – but seriously – why would anyone think there is a reason to own assault weapons of war – I don’t get it.

    In any case – many thanks for your clarity.

  • December 19, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Thank you. I feel very much like I did after 9/11. Like nothing here will be the same now.

    This is too much–and something here MUST change.

    I struggle myself with depression and I learned early on to be very careful telling people that I take medication–even my own primary doctor started treating me differently once he knew.

    I don’t know enough about the young man who did this horrible thing–but the fact that almost no one knew him or remembers him –and he lived there most of his life is very sad to me. What he did was evil, but he seems to have had a really sad life.

    I hope if anything good can come of this terrible thing–it is that something changes here. I have hopes for our President–he does not have to worry any more about being elected–that he can become a force for change in this country.

  • December 19, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    As usual well said. I don’t understand “our” gun obsession either nor o I lump all quirky behavior as crazy. Thank you lily fir writing and encouraging dialogue.

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