The Colorado Shooting: Guns Aren’t The Only Big Problem, People

Last night I sat on a friend’s sofa at our book club gathering, blinking away tears. We weren’t able to focus on the book we’d read; instead we were discussing the Colorado shooting, its victims, how dazed and drugged up James Holmes seemed in court. We talked about the calculated effort he’d put into the attack, down to dying his hair bright red like The Joker, and how easy it was for him to amass his weapons. We shared details we’d heard about Holmes,24,  a doctoral student enrolled in an exclusive neurosciences program run by the National Institutes of Health who dropped out in June. Years ago, I’d read on CNN, he worked as a counselor at a Los Angeles camp for needy kids.

“Just what went wrong in this man’s head?” I wondered. My friend who’s a psychologist spoke up. She believed that James Holmes had a schizophrenic episode. She noted that for clients over age 18 with mental illness, she is legally not allowed to discuss their issues with their parents (although if one ever spoke of committing violence, she was obliged to report that to authorities). She spoke of the stigma of mental illness in this country.

There’s been conjecture in the press that Holmes was depressed. The truth about his mental state (or the closest thing to it) will emerge from the extensive psychiatric evaluation he’ll undergo, which will track his life from infancy to help determine how he thinks, feels and communicates.

There’s been so much talk, in private and public, about gun violence. But here’s a stat not making headlines: About 14.8 million American adults, 6.7 percent of the population, have Major Depressive Disorder. It is the leading cause of disability in the Us. for ages 15 to 44, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. About 2.4 million American adults have schizophrenia.

Evil is not the reason behind mass murder like this. Access to guns isn’t the root cause. Autism is certainly not the cause, as MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough mused (and later apologized for). Mental illness is.

Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, a book about that school massacre, notes in a recent New York Times editorial that the press painted Eric Harris and Dylan Kelbold as “two outcast loners” who sought revenge against the jocks who bulled them. “Not one bit of that turned out to be true,” he says, and goes on to talk about the boys’ journals. Harris’s was filled with hate—a clear psychopath. Klebold’s was full of self hate and misery. He was depressed; in an unusual turn for someone suffering depression, he turned his anger outward.

While there’s little stigma attached to buying a gun, the one against mental illness is strong. So strong that, in fact, two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek treatment, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). That includes millions of teens, ashamed of asking for help, noted research published in a recent Journal of Nursing Measurement. The problem starts during the formative years, when kids in need of mental health assistance don’t get it because of parents’ shame. As many as 85 percent of children who need mental health treatment “are not receiving any because of the perceived stigma associated with mental illness,” according to research cited in an article in the Health Science Journal.

Last month, Canada’s Mental Health Commission hosted a three-day conference dedicated to mental illness stigma. “Stigma and prejudice of mental illness is still a serious problem….the perception remains in some sections of society where it’s seen as a personal failing or weakness,” notes psychologist John M. Grohol, founder of Psych Central. ”While Health 2.0 is all the rage in healthcare, few talk about Mental Health 2.0.”

What all this means is that many other James Holmes are out there right now. Growing up unhappy, sad, miserable. Turning into unhappy, sad, miserable teens and adults who could become very, very angry at the world.

Mental health experts continue to speak out against the stigma against mental illness. NAMI’s Stigma Busters initiative asks people to report negative portrayals of mental illness in the media. But until people open their minds, and until this country starts a major conversation about mental illness—one that’s as prevalent and passionate as the one about guns—there will be continued violence committed by people like James Holmes.


From my other blog:

Let’s not blame the parents


Image/CNN video screen grab

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  1. by M T

    On July 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    I agree, there is a massive stigma against mental health issues. Over here in the UK it is the same. I’ve had depression since I was a young child but it was never really diagnosed until I was 16. The only reason it got diagnosed was because I finally stood up and went to the doctors alone. When my parents found out I was attending a clinic every few weeks to see a psychiatric nurse and get help, they told me it was a stupid idea, i would never become a teacher and that I should stop going. They were ‘ashamed of what the neighbours might think’.

    Now, my sister attends the same clinic for an eating disorder which my parents fail to agree she has. Of course, i’m not blaming them on bad parenting, but it is to do with the way they have been brought up. They don’t accept either of us have problems because they don’t understand it. My parents don’t understand I still have issues getting out of bed every morning, how some days I won’t go to university because i’ll be stuck inside in too much physical and emotional pain.

    Stigma need to end.

  2. by Galen Gregory

    On July 24, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    After the Tucson shootings, when it became obvious that Jared Loughner was schizophrenic but had never received any mental health treatment, there was lots of talk about mental illness and the urgent need for improved mental health services. But the American people apparently have the attention span of a gnat, and when states started having budget problems, what was the first thing on the chopping block? Mental health programs, of course. And then, when the next horrific act of violence occurs, we start casting blame again: Why won’t those people get help? Why didn’t their parents do something? Why won’t they take their medication? As the mother of a young adult who is schizophrenic, I could answer all of those questions, but it would take too long. Suffice it to say is that getting mental health treatment for a young adult is not as simple as it would appear to someone who has never dealt with a loved one who has severe mental illness.

  3. by Valerie

    On July 24, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you for bringing this up. I was diagnosed with depression at 14 and have been living with it the last 17 years. While I’m able to work now, it has been a long road and I’ve had many scary moments. I’ve struggled to find the right treatment, and at times have had to go without it because I can’t afford it. Even WITH health insurance. And there have also been times I haven’t had insurance and just had to hope for the best while I waited on the government to tell me if I qualified for help. I have lost many relationships over the years, including some with family members, mostly because of their misunderstanding the reality of having a mental illness. While things have been getting better for me the last few years, it hasn’t been without A LOT of hard work, sacrifice, and prayer. I hope that I get to see society come around on the idea that mental illness isn’t real or very important while I’m still alive. As any parent, I don’t want my children to perhaps have to go through the same pain that I have, and to live in a more accepting world.

  4. by Ellen S.

    On July 25, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Just wanted to share an excellent comment left on my Facebook page by one Brian Hughes:

    “Interesting article. Over the years I have had numerous conversation with young people around this young man’s age who were Schizophrenic but had not been diagnosed. By the time I met them, their families and friends had given up because they did not know what to do. I’m sure you have seen or are familiar with this one: “A Beautiful Mind” written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Ron Howard. In my 15 years as a police officer having met numerous people suffering from mental health, that movie is about as accurate as you can get at portraying this illness. The drugged out look is probably the result of an influx of medications, which he likely has never had. Gun control is an easy discussion, mental health is not.”

  5. by Galen Gregory

    On July 25, 2012 at 9:28 am

    I have to comment on what Brian Hughes said. He referred to “an influx of medications, which he likely has never had.” If he is implying, as many people and even news sources have, that the shooter has been medicated by jail personnel, that is just wrong. Jail staff cannot medicate prisoners willy nilly. There would have to be a psychiatric evaluation, and doctors, judges, and defense lawyers would all have to agree to it.

  6. by Guillaume

    On July 25, 2012 at 10:03 am

    As a former psychiatric nurse, I have seen many cases of young adults being diagnosed with schizophrenia after an acute episode that finally got enough attention to warrant hospitalization. Sometimes it seems to come out of the blue, but often there were signs that were dismissed or discounted along the way, not by the family, but by the professionals that were consulted.
    Among my own relatives, I have seen parents trying for years (years!) to get the proper help for a depressed child. There is a definite lack of competent services, along with a tendency to medicate first and ask questions later.