"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Madness and Mayhem

It seems everyone has an opinion as to what should be done about the school shooting in Connecticut, but no one's suggesting what they themselves should do. It's human nature to look for solutions that are simple, fast, cheap and effortless and, to paraphrase H. L. Mencken, such solutions are wrong. One thing I can do is to give one perspective that is being overlooked.

One day when I was in college, I was in a busy corridor when a blind woman said very loudly, "My wallet! It's gone!" A few people took glances around - there weren't many places to look - and I told her it wasn't to be found. "I've been robbed!" she cried and, as I was about to suggest how to get help, she added "You robbed me! HELP!" Then she started screaming, pummeling anyone and anything she could reach and taking off her clothes. Everyone got away as quickly as possible (alas, including me) as someone called campus security. I then went to visit my girlfriend who was in a locked psychiatric ward and she comforted me as I told her the story... that's a side of mental illness you don't hear about. The blind woman was not "crazy" - imagine yourself in the situation: you feel you've been dealt a bad hand in life, you're having a bad day and then something tragic and unexpected happens; no one will help you, you can't trust anyone around you, you have no resources, no way to get help (this was before cell phones) and no way to get safely home. Lashing out suddenly seems a pretty reasonable response.

People are looking for ways to protect their children from the mentally ill, but the ways they choose make the situation worse. Mental illness is very isolating. People don't want to be around the mentally ill, but it is that isolation that fosters a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness which can lead to drastic actions. The Sandy Hook shooter was reportedly taking psychiatric medications and was seeing a psychiatrist, as was the Virginia Tech shooter and the Colorado movie theatre shooter. What they didn't have was a support system, a group of people they could talk to and spend time with (as is often the case, Adam Lanza's mother was trying to do it all by herself, though she reportedly told others he needed to be watched 24 hours a day). So what can you do? Get over the uncomfortableness and get to know the "weird loners" in your world. It takes time and effort and won't be easy. Instead, we relegate them to the authorities, who do what they can, but are limited in resources. The problem is too big to be handled by bureaucracy; it takes a concerted effort by all.

The types of mental illness usually involved in these tragedies is not what most people think they are, but rather things common and reasonably manageable. For example, sadistic psychopaths, despite what films and television shows like "Criminal Minds" (which I like, by the way) portray, are extremely rare. They're usually "in the system" from a young age and no one's surprised by their actions, as they always do the worst thing they can think of, to shock, disgust or frighten. There's not much you can do with them but limit their options. They appear to have structural problems in their brains; a doctor who studied a number of them found observable abnormalities - which he also found in others, including himself! Such abnormalities do not mean that one is going to become a psychopath; those in loving nurturing environments appear to develop normally. You are part of that environment; whether you respond with compassion or with contempt helps decide their fate.

Also, few killers are schizophrenics who have lost touch with reality, though these do occur. The disheveled homeless we tend to think of when we think of schizophrenia are too disorganized to be much of a threat; they are the small per centage not helped by medication, which has helped the majority of schizophrenics to lead fairly normal lives. The paranoid who attack crowds because everone is against them has been taught by society that he is different, has been taunted and teased by strangers, has found that nothing makes sense, that no one can understand him, that people will take advantage of him because he's vulnerable. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they have misinterpreted what they've experienced. It is hard to reach them, to calm them. It is hard to love them. Yet, that is the best option.

The vast majority of killers are depressed (as either a problem in itself or a symptom of another problem). They don't see that they have options. They don't see any hope for the future being better. They don't see any way to get out of their situation. They are lonely, anxious and scared. This is a treatable problem and sometimes a preventable one. The standard treatment is medication - because it is "simple, fast, cheap and effortless" - and counseling. This treatment does work for most people with mild depression, but it is a shortcut. The solution is for society, for you and me, to show people who are struggling that we care, that we will try to help (or at the least, find someone else who will), to convince them that there is hope, to be available to them when we are needed, to guide them to paths that will let them climb their way out of their depression.

Sequestering, marginalizing and shunning the mentally ill is not a solution. It is the problem.


Xenia said...

This right here. This post needs to go viral. Perhaps if we tack Morgan Freeman's name to it, it will?

Karen said...


sea legs girl said...

For what it is worth, I for one am not trying to protect my children from the mentally ill (there are many in our family- and I love them all). I am trying to protect them from assault rifles.

Psychiatric illnesses are definitely more likely to be successfully treated with support from family and friends and less stigma. Right on.

wildknits said...

Agree with Xenia and Karen - and hope you are okay if I share this with others.

Thank you for writing this.

We do need to ensure that people have access to behavioral health services, appropriate medications, and a variety of support programs to meet their (and their caregivers/loved ones) needs.

Diana said...

Agreed, those suffering from mental illness need as much support and love as they can get. Don't forget that the ones offering it, the caregivers and family members, also need a lot of support.
Great post.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Steve, this is an excellent post. I have so many comments don't even know where to start. I'll be blogging about more of this in the coming days once my work hangover wears off. The stigma of mental illness is huge, and our resources to deal with it suck. And our legal system sucks too, because we don't have options that work for people who need protection, either from themselves, or from someone who threatens them. And mental illness does not make someone a bad person, any more than having cancer makes someone a bad person. Fantastic post.

SteveQ said...

@SLG: I didn't want to get into the gun control issue. Stopping assault weapons is a good idea, but it's not sufficient: you still get the Tim McVeighs who kill hundreds with bombs made from fertilizer and oil.

sea legs girl said...

Steve, I think I have read this post ten times now. It provokes such an emotional response in me and I fear I will come off as just wanting to be a contrarian with what I have to say - but the truth is that many people with very good support networks have serious pyschiatric illnesses in spite of that. I just want to be sure that you are not saying that a supportive environment is sufficient alone to treat a psychiatric illness.

As Diana mentioned, care givers also need a lot of support. And I hope they don't take away from the post that they are not doing a good job if a loved one or family member continues to have problems.

Maybe I've misinterpreted everything, in which case I apologize. And I agree with a lot of what you are saying.

SteveQ said...

Tracy, I wondered if it would be read that way; that's not what I intended -especially considering that I've been the sole caregiver of someone who was mentally ill. My point was that it is not a problem amenable to easy fixes and that people should be looking to what they can do, rather than telling others what they should do.

sea legs girl said...

Good, Steve. Thanks for the response! Then we agree.

Thanks for bringing attention to such an important subject. Yes, the more people know about psychiatric illnesses, the more they can do for themeselves (if need be) and others.