Tuesday, July 24th, 2012
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:
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