I am not the Lanzas and neither are you
We are still without a useful language, shared framework or common understanding for talking about mental illness in our everyday lives. So time and time again we find ourselves trying to understand something as inordinately complex as mental illness under the emotional strain and psychological duress of a horrific tragedy like Sandy Hook. And then …there’s no way we’ll get one ounce of the clarity we seek.
The Kansas City Star
Dear Internet bloggers:
With all due respect to your bravery and willingness to speak out about your powerful personal experiences (“I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and “I Am Adam Lanza”) you don’t really know if you’re Adam Lanza or his mother.
Largely because we don’t have any substantiated facts about Adam Lanza, his mental health, his relationship with his mother or any fascination with or fixation on violence he may have had.
Nobody knows what Adam Lanza and his mom went through because apparently nobody in their everyday lives talked to them about mental illness, developmental disorder or anything else that may have been going on with him.
That’s entirely on par with how we do things in the larger culture, by the way. We don’t talk about mental illness at all until something like this happens. And by then, it’s too late for some.
We are still without a useful language, shared framework or common understanding for talking about mental illness in our everyday lives.
So time and time again we find ourselves trying to understand something as inordinately complex as mental illness under the emotional strain and psychological duress of a horrific tragedy like Sandy Hook. And then …there’s no way we’ll get one ounce of the clarity we seek.
What we need is calm, informed, reflective, critical, empathetic thinking about what mental illness looks like and how it operates in the everyday lives of everyday Americans from its mildest forms to its most severe so that we can become less afraid of it. So that we can understand it. So that we can stop the suffering. So that on the relatively few occasions it happens, we can lessen the chance that someone who is ill might cause harm.
Mental illness is biological illness and disorder (just like any other disease). It’s neurological. The chemical processes of the brain misfire and cause the brain to betray the mind and body in a number of ways. And, it deserves empathy and compassion just as any illness deserves empathy and compassion.
But mental illness isn’t understood as brain disease or bodily dysfunction. It’s treated altogether differently. Like personality defect, character weakness or just really messed up choices a “sick” person makes.
What other disease invites judgment about character? Which other is seen as an innate failure of personal strength or morality? (Ironically, a hundred years ago the answer would have been cancer. But now we tie pink ribbons and support societal awareness for that disease.)
My life has been immensely and intimately shaped by mental illness. (I’ve long been out of the closet about having suffered a five-year long soul-crushing depression and despondency in my late 20s and know a number of people suffering currently.) I can tell you that mental illness impacts us in ways as individual and intricate as all our lives, experiences and personalities are.
According to the Center for Disease Control “One in two Americans has a diagnosable mental disorder each year.” http://www.cdc.gov/omhd/amh/factsheets/mental.htm
Know what that means? That mental illness is widespread (especially depression and anxiety). That someone you know is struggling with it … and hiding it. That it’s highly (but not always) treatable. That the grand majority of mentally ill people do not commit violence.
In fact, as Columbia University Professor of Law and Medicine, Paul Appelbaum has stated 95% of gun violence is committed by people who do not have a diagnosis of mental illness.
In short, just because somebody does something “crazy” doesn’t mean they are ill. Sometimes people are just pissed, mean, entitled and armed.
It should also be stated that the mentally ill are far more likely to BE the victims of violence than perpetrate it.
Is that the impression you get each and every time one of these atrocities occurs?
Not if you go by the talking heads on cable network news, internet chatter and how many people are seriously entertaining NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s suggestion that we build a database for the mentally ill as a viable solution for gun violence. (Seriously?)
The “access to guns” issue aside, there is a conversation that needs to be had about mental illness. (And not just because mental illness has played a part in some of the mass shootings in recent years.)
So let’s talk.
Let’s talk about how when a pancreas misfires we call that diabetes and offer emotional and financial support. Let’s talk about how when a cell misfires and we call that cancer, human compassion is rightfully offered. Let’s talk about how when a brain misfires on somebody we call that “crazy” and want to move away from the person who is suffering. Rapidly.
Let’s talk about how the medical system is such an abominable failure for mental health patients that parents can get help quicker through calling the police on a sick child than finding a hospital bed for him. Let’s talk about the games insurance companies play so that families are straddled with bills on par with paying for cancer treatment. Let’s talk about the stigma strapped to the backs of mentally ill people that make it nearly impossible to reach out for help.
Let’s bleeping talk.
Let’s make it so the things that Adam Lanza’s mother may have wished she could say out loud to her friends and neighbors get said. Let’s talk so that many of us who have suffered or are suffering may.