I’ve been quiet since Friday. The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence. Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.
Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday. I don’t like talking about my own mental illness. I’m ashamed of it. But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.
This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy. We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out. And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs. Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.
I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness. Every time I read something like that, I cringe. The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence. As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.
As S.E. Smith wrote:
As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.
The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.
Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.
You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.
And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people. Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill. In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive. Most people don’t even know that I’m ill. You see, I know the warning signs. In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing. Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching. But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.
Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings. The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill. In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.
I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me. She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend. In fact, a few of my friends called me. They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.
That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend. For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities. And you know what this does? It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness. As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.
It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill. Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder. Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness. After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.