Thursday, February 21, 2013

Another Look at Sandy Hook

By Julie Benn, NAMI San Diego

As yet another violent massacre occurs in our country—this one involving children, so it makes it all the harder to take—I pause to think about it, as I have done so often since the news broke on Dec. 14, 2012. During the chaos, ABC had on a senior medical correspondent, who was an M.D., stating that the tragedy and the gunman was “the face of mental illness.” I immediately took offense. Really? We knew virtually nothing about the shooter at the time, let alone whether or not he had a diagnosed mental illness. Yet, here was the media, already branding him the face of a disease that affects 57.7 million people in our country alone. That's a lot of “faces” that he is supposedly representing.

It may come out, as the news continues to unfold, that mental illness did a play a role. Right now, we just don't know. As an organization, we are putting out the statistics to fight the stigma that will no doubt be a backlash from this tragedy—that people who have mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator; that the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small; and that it is important that we not make assumptions or speculate as to what the role of mental illness played in this situation at this time.

However, it's hard for us as a society not to speculate, not to make assumptions as to the sanity of a person who would willingly shoot his own mother and then go into a school and shoot kids and the adults trying to protect them. It's hard for us not to jump to the conclusion that this was a “crazed gunman” who, at the end, took his own life.

NAMI says that mental illness is an illness like any other. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illness is a disorder of the brain. However, right now, I find myself questioning that. Is mental illness truly “an illness like any other?” Does diabetes make a person want to harm themselves or others? Does high blood pressure distort messages in the mind and make a person feel that they are called to kill? Does cancer create voices that drive a person to crime?

Or, is this type of behavior unique to mental illness? Is mental illness, rather, “an illness like none other?” And should it be treated as such? Maybe it is, indeed, a very special illness that requires very special treatment. One that requires early prevention and intervention and that treatment should be wholly available to anyone who needs it.

I have mental illness. I have not killed myself or anyone else, but I have caused harm. Not criminal harm, but harm nonetheless in the form of self-abuse and, at times, adversely affecting those who love me. At times, I have been very upfront in sharing my journey with mental illness. Other times, in certain circles of people, I have pretended that portion of my journey just doesn't exist. Maybe that needs to change.

If any good can come out of the Newtown tragedy, it may be that mental health will be front and center on the nation's agenda. Treating mental illness, talking about mental illness, confronting issues that affect mental health will take as much precedence as treating and talking about other physical health disorders.

But, in order for that to happen, mental illness needs to come out of the closet, out of the darkness, out of the impenetrable silence. We need to be able to simply talk about it in our country, in our state, our neighborhoods, and our families.

The President has now called for a national dialogue on mental illness, which is supposed to be launched this spring. His proposal includes:

  • Early identification and intervention including training for teachers, school resource officers and others in a position to spot the signs of mental illness and provide assistance.
  • Steps for improving mental health and substance abuse treatment for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25.
  • Finalizing mental health parity regulations for health insurance.
  • Training more than 5,000 additional mental health professionals to serve students and young adults.
  • Launching efforts to improve understanding of mental illness and the importance of mental health treatment.

These are all wonderful intentions; the test will be whether the President, Congress and state governments follow through. For if mental health is not talked about, the downside of it is that the problems don't go away. Rather they can go underground, growing and festering until they come out the other side as something unrecognizable, unfathomable, and yes, tragic.

The good news is that we know mental illness is treatable—in that way it is an illness like many others. We can't cure it yet, but living in recovery is possible. Remission is possible; as is relapse. It requires close monitoring and support, and often medications and counseling.

Like Type 1 diabetes, dealing with mental illness is a lifelong process. Unlike diabetes, mental illness can cause some odd beliefs and behavior, but it is still manageable; tricky, sometimes, but ultimately treatable.

And this is where the conversation should be headed.


Anonymous said...

Excellent writings.

Karen Redmond said...

America needs to put all the pieces of this puzzle together and get a solution that will help the troubled as well as help keep innocent people safe

Anonymous said...

The fact is even when we as parents accept our children's mental illness it is only a select group of people that we can share with. No one should be judging our children and our families based on mental illness but they do. Personally, I do not need friends or even aquaintances that have bigotted views on mental illness but it is not fair to my child when other's do not accept her based on her illness. I can take their rude comments and rationalize that such feeble minded people are not worthy of our friendship, but my child is hurt by their ridiculous comments. So I will continue to filter anyone that I decide to share her disease with because her security is my priority. That makes mental illness very lonely for parents as well as children. With any other illness, a hospitalization is a cause for friends to rally but not with mental illness most people steer clear. Is it any wonder that an already troubled mind lashes out. I am not justifying anything but sick children need to be supported.

Anonymous said...

theword Mental is such a stigma. i know i attached a stigma to it years ago before i got educated. i now go to a nami support group for depression.

Anonymous said...

I for one seem to thnk that untreated mental illness was a leading factor in the Sandy Hook case. I think now is the time to start focusing our attention on mental health care in this country.
The shooter in this case needed help and it appears that his mother was trying to get him just that. I understand how hard it is to find proper treatment having gone through 10 years of trying to get help for my own son. Mental health care is a travesty in this country and those who suffer deserve better. I feel that Adam is a victim in this also. It is time for people dealing with mental illness to come forward and talk about the experience and bring forth the shortcomings in a broken system.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts. I agree wholeheartedly that society and our government needs to help change things. My son is mentally ill. He hurt someone that he loves very much. He was shocked and saddened by what he had done so much that he tried to kill himself. Luckily, both survived and are making the best of things, still with a great love for each other. We spent 3 months before this incident trying to get him proper help. We still are trying to get him help, but now we have to do it with the complication of the judiciary system. It's been such a tragedy.

John McManamy said...

Fantastic article, Julie!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your open and thoughtful writing. You have expressed what many of us have been thinking.

Anonymous said...

Your thoughts sound an alarm that our government and society need to hear. If we could get more financial aid from our government for mental health issues (instead of spending research money on such frivolous studies about the mating rituals of the tsetse fly),then we might begin to solve some of the serious societal problems that we face. Thanks for beginning the national discussion.

Anonymous said...

While I'm happy to see any funding for mental health and think it is a sin that it has been cut so much it is extremely disturbing that the NRA and politicians are dumping the gun problem on people with mental illnesses. The VAST majority of violent crime is NOT committed by those with a mental illness. They are not acts out of a mental illness - they are acts committed by criminals and DV perps. Check out - they've been tracking gun deaths since the Sandy shootings. Come on you guys - stick up for yourselves and the rest of us!

Jill Sadowsky said...

Dear Julie,
Your excellent and courageous article mae me cry. If we parents do not speak out, we are making the discrimination and stigma worse. I blog about this daily and wondered whether you would give me permission to put this article on my blog - under your name or under NAMI, whatever you prefer.
Our family spoke out, then I started writing and giving talks about coping with mental illness in our family. Our son hurt himself and is no longer with us but I do not want any other mother to feel that she is alone. There is a lot of help out there today.
Be well,
Jill Sadowsky

Anonymous said...

Our goverment ONLY pay attention to any issue including mental illness if it affects any of their family members. Nationally, mental health funding has been reduced over the last ten years in all the states in the US. Very sad!

Unknown said...

I'm sorry I disagree. Not ALL mental illness is a "life long" thing. I had major depression at age 16. It was very bad.

I find that if something is triggered by trauma and if you get the right therapy you can be cured. For me, I had to learn how to love myself. For me, my depression (as an adult) was due to long term unemployment that started in 2007. I'm still unemployed, but I have learned how to love myself.

May be in the case of Bipolar, BPD or Schizophrenia, those are life long. I can't really comment on them, since I don't have them. And I'm not very close to anyone with them. I can only speak about my experience with major depression. AND that IS considered a mental illness. But should it be considered "You have this diagnosis forever". ?????

To label all mental illness and say "It is a life long battle" or "life long thing" is not true. And it hurts people to do so. Sometimes you can fix your life situation and the very bad depression goes away. Get a job. Earn some money. Now you are not homeless. How you have purpose. Once you begin to learn to love yourself, may now (females) you can start to wear makeup and do your hair. Very depressed people may not want to even take a shower, let alone put makeup on.

Why do you think we have so many people that have depression and it sky rockets during a bad recession? People/families can't live on $800 a month. Logically, that would make anyone fall into a deep depression.

I just don't think all mental illness should be lumped together. All are not equal. But I digress.

James said...

This is a great article. When Sandy Hook happened, I'm one of those people who immediately concluded that the person who did the crime to these innocent children is not in proper state of mind or suffering from mental illness. This article gave me a different view about mental illness and that the government should focus on mental health care programs too.

Anonymous said...

What a well written and informative article. The stigma of mental illness is almost as painful as the disease itself.