As a society, we’ve come to just plain ignore mental illness. For many years it’s been the stigma of mental illness that has caused it to be ignored and not talked about. However, even in earlier times with the stigma there were some measures in place to deal with the mentally ill. Now, in an instant gratification society facing myriads of financial problems it’s no surprise mental illness has been driven further underground.
Only a few days ago there were sporadic news reports of a mentally ill man locked in his cell at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail, for a week sexually mutilated himself and died covered in his own feces. This is one of our forms of dealing with mental illness now – lock them up and ignore them. Certainly it’s not anything new the Romans did it but here in 2014 one of our main solutions is to just ignore them until they kill themselves. Unfortunately, they frequently kill others.
It’s no surprise when the first calls after another multiple homicide gun related incident are to blame the gun. It’s easy to do. I won’t blame a clearly grieved father for doing so but he did have the right word when he chose “insanity”. The truth is it’s easier to let ourselves off the hook and point to the inanimate object and blame it for the woes of our society. It’s far more difficult to decide what to do about insanity.
I’ve been reading Dave Cullen’s outstanding book Columbine and it’s shocking really the string of recent shootings that are so eerily similar to each other and similar to the Columbine Massacre. In each of them you have children of affluent parents with identified mental disorders, several of whom were even under treatment, that were able to fool everyone and resort to the atrocities they committed.
Eric Harris was found to be a “full blown psychopath”. His father had a notebook recording his incidents, he was in therapy and he was taking medication.
James Eagan Holmes was a graduate student pursuing a PhD and several clearly intelligent and well educated people and professionals noted his troubling behavior, he even named a condition for someone and told them to avoid him.
Adam Lanza had been in treatment and medicated for years with an array of different psychiatric disorders. His very affluent parents divorced where his mother was left to care for him alone. His father still wishes to avoid the entanglement to this day preferring “he had never been born”.
Now comes Elliot Rodger, another child of privilege, also in treatment, also with engaged parents who tried to help their son. Weeks before his mother had called the police looking for them to intervene given his behavior. The police found him to be no risk and left. Psychopaths tend to be good at that, it’s one of their most treasured traits – the ability to lie and lie very well. I don’t fault a police officer for not seeing it.
While it is true there are guns linking all of these people it’s also true they are the faces of mental illness. In fact, none of these cases really had any hidden mental illness – it was known and it was identified but it wasn’t caught as psychopathy. Why? Because identifying psychopaths is hard, they make it hard.
At this point a normal blog post would go on about “awareness” but people are pelted daily with how they are to be aware of different illnesses. It’s strange in all this call for awareness the one we never hear is about being aware of one’s self and one’s family.
What answers do I have? I don’t have any, the answers aren’t easy. I could make it easy and point at the gun. I could called it “entitled white male syndrome” that seems to be popular with some. Maybe we have a different way we approach the poor who are mentally ill? Is it far easier to lock up and put away one of them than it is a privileged white person? That would be about the only place the argument would hold any water with me. Of course that would be condoning just locking up people and putting them away.
None of these answers is easy in a free society and I can tell you the answer isn’t to start taking away freedoms in one form or another. I’m afraid the only answer is a difficult one and that is to let go our stigma and reluctance to talk about and find solutions for mental illness. When we have that conversation we also need to understand, we will never catch them all.