Jared Loughner (Phoenix), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), James Holmes (Aurora, Colorado), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Kipland Kinkel (Springfield, Oregon)
These young men are the poster boys for most of American society’s attitude toward the mentally ill: mentally ill people are dangerous; give them a gun and they will kill you. The attitude is deeply imbedded in the psyche of the normal population. I just finished reading a book by the author Kathy Reichs called “Devil Bones,” in which in the end the killer is revealed to be a manic-depressive who wasn’t taking his medications. Idiot, writing I thought. She’s picking the easy mark. Not a day goes by without some news story or police drama that doesn’t finger a mentally ill person as the culprit. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, we have the NRA deflecting the issue of the right to own semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles by proposing draconian measures to take away the civil rights of people with mental illness. We have state legislators demanding that the mentally ill be deprived of the right to own a weapon as if that is going to solve a problem where there are more guns floating around than people and where violence is a national addiction.
I am for gun control. I see no need to have semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles in anybody’s hands other than the military and law enforcement. All the mentally ill mass killers pictured above had these weapons. I am for background checks. I am for outlawing semi-automatic pistols in private hands in cities over 50,000 people. I am for the all-out ban of assault weapons. If a person has a criminal record or has run afoul of the law because of some incident related to a mental illness, the right to own a weapon should be restricted. What I don’t like is the potential exposure of medical records to gun dealers, politicians, and law enforcement. Medical records should remain private, but I fear in this age of easy access through computer technology that this barrier will be breached if it already hasn’t been. The civil rights of persons who have or have had a mental illness will be totally compromised. A person with mental illness becomes someone apart from society. We become lepers. It was John Nash, the schizophrenic Nobel laureate, who coined the phrase, “We are the new lepers.”
At a recent one-day conference in Pasadena, California, called “Facing the Crisis: Mental Illness and Gun Violence” sponsored by NAMI San Gabriel Valley, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, and the Fuller Theological Seminary, Fredrick Frese, Ph.D., a schizophrenic unashamed of his mental condition, and a professor of psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio Universities, brought up John Nash’s remark. The conference, which had some wonderful and highly regarded speakers, was lightly attended and wasn’t even reported upon by any of the area’s news organizations. I concluded that most of society cares little about the positive information to be gleaned about the relationship of mental illness to gun violence. Those social elements: the gun lovers, the outraged politicians, the media, and those who are unwilling and too lazy to see the truth, want the madmen and women controlled. They shrink in fear from the mentally ill. It’s us versus them. From the way they look at the problem, the madmen are winning.
But it is not us versus them! As Frederick Frese, his voice growing louder and his lip tic becoming even more distinct, pointed out, we are not separate, but an essential part of the human family. “It’s in the gene pool,” he said. “It is not defects but differences. We think out of the box. For us there is no box.” I have always felt that way. I think differently. It is the way my brain is wired. That wiring causes me difficulty, like my tendency to severe downs and super-exhilarating ups. Mental illness is a difficulty not a defect. Look at all the people with mental difficulties, who have contributed to our culture. At the beginning of the conference each participant was handed a bookmarker with the heading “People with mental illness enrich our lives” The list started with Abraham Lincoln; and included Beethoven, Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Newton, Sylvia Plath, Vivian Leigh, Jimmy Piersall; and ended with John Nash.
Yes, a small percentage of the mentally ill are dangerous, but compare them against the normal Americans who are prone to violence. Their number way far surpasses the number of violence-prone mentally ill people. Keris Myrick, Ph.D.c, an articulate woman with a mental illness, National president of NAMI, and President/CEO of Project Return stated, “Conjoining mental illness and gun violence is wrong. The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators.” Increasing the stigmatization of mental illness by separating this faction from the whole and attributing the issue of gun violence to the lack of restriction of their rights is “binary thinking” according to the Reverend Edwin Bacon, Rector of All Saints Church. Rector Bacon, who spoke of his own clinical depression, expressed the view that mental health and gun violence are embraced in an overall “toxic narrative” that condones violence and a violent response to violence.
Dr. Michael Walsh, Director of Pasadena’s Department of Public Health, stated that violence is a public health issue. With the passion of a pastor, Dr. Walsh noted that even those who were engaged in noble violence by being members of the American military “leave something behind” after they have engaged in killing. As we witness the enormous number of suicides and the recent killing of a former Navy Seal by a man suffering from PTSD, we know the price these individuals have paid to be killers. We can’t just divide them off from the community and make them lepers.
The question is not how to stop mentally ill madmen from shooting up our towns, but how to stop the mentality of violence. Eric Sahakian, from the Pasadena School District, said that 58% of students with emotional issues drop out of school and 75% of them are arrested within two years. The school system is trying to reduce the risk of violence by teaching appropriate methods for dealing with feelings of anger. This is yet another example that proper treatment and available treatment goes a long way toward helping reduce both mental illness and violence. However the mentality of violence goes much deeper. It resides in the computer games people play, the movies and television programs they watch, the books they read, the news they hear and see, and even in athletic contests people play and view.
I have no prescription for treating this mentality. What I do believe will mitigate this negative mentality is when, as Rev. Bacon stated, we recognize we live in a “network of mutuality.” There is no “them.” We are not binary. We are all one. Everyone is somehow connected to mental illness and violence. It’s in our families, present with our friends, lives our neighborhoods, cities; and is in our universe. It’s in the gene pool extrapolating on the words of Dr. Frese. Looking at the six young men who murdered so many innocent people, I don’t see any one who appears much different from most of humanity. There isn’t a woman or an African American among these six, but if I looked further into the records I’m sure I could find a stand-in. Perhaps if these persons, the Adam Lanzas of the world, had felt their connection to the human community they might not have done what they did. Perhaps if all humans recognized the truth that we are part of one world community we wouldn’t resort to violence because it is ultimately against ourselves.