After a string of violent incidents that clearly indicate the presence of an unhealthy mental state, it is still shocking that a Congressional debate on improving mental healthcare in this nation has not been mentioned. Clearly, with the government shutdown, hands are probably tied right now, but it is not even getting suggested. Stop me if you have evidence of impending mental healthcare reform with the inclusion of ongoing care and assistance of the mentally ill once they have left hospital.
When yet another violent attack by an individual happens, everyone gets bogged down in motives and intentions, which are important, but secondary to the mental health of the individual. Poor mental health can only serve to exacerbate or create dangerous motives and intentions, and a discussion of the motives and intentions of mentally ill people cannot happen if mental health is excluded.
These violent events often re-ignite quarrels about gun control. Regardless of whether or not you think all law-abiding U.S. citizens are entitled to own a gun, I think we can all agree that a gun in the hand of a mentally ill person is a recipe for disaster. What I think many fail to understand is that mental illness is not necessarily something you are born with and it can manifest itself at any point during a person’s life. It’s perfectly possible for a gun owner, who has safely owned and kept their gun for many years, to suffer mental illness. This does not automatically mean they will become a killer, but owning a gun might not be a good idea for this person any longer. Currently, in light of gun debates and commentary on mass shootings, the mentally ill seem to be treated like they are those ‘other’ people who hatch from eggs in the forest, and have nothing to do with us normal people.
Mental health is often excluded from initial discussions of these events, because as a nation we want immediate accountability. To say that a shooter killed a number of people was a schizophrenic who was off their medication is not a satisfying answer – it almost makes the event kind of pointless, meaning that lives were lost for nothing. To say that a killer was evil, had a hatred for a certain group of people, or was deranged as I’ve heard it explained, seems to give our rage and indignation of the event a focus or a purpose – after all, after a tragedy we need to stick our blame to something if we are to help our feet back to the ground.
Wanting to attach accountability to Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Naval Yard in DC, in my opinion, is the easy and natural thing to do, especially for the victims and the victims’ families. But politicians and elected officials cannot allow themselves to fall back on this. President Obama referred to the intentions of Alexis as ‘cowardly’. This kind of comment is of no use to anyone – how is it useful to discuss the behavior of a man suffering psychotic symptoms, who had a shotgun in his possession and who killed 12 people, as acting cowardly? This attitude means that nothing gets done, and we’re almost guaranteed that a similar event is going to happen again. If the reason for a shooting is that the shooter was a schizophrenic off their medication, we should turn our indignation towards an inadequate mental healthcare system, and the absence of mental health education. We should also demand to know why so many red flags are often missed. Aaron Alexis had a ten year history of mental illness, was involved in three crimes, and yet he was still able to buy a gun and get a pass to work at the navy yard – this is the failure, and this should be the target of our national indignation.
In light of the shooting at the navy yard, a number of pundits were also quick to jump on Obama’s comment that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin, and quipped, “If Obama had a son, he would look like Aaron Alexis.” This is no doubt supposed to be humorous because a number of conservatives and Zimmerman supporters were irked by Obama’s comment about Martin, because in their opinion Martin had been a threat. Alexis was a threat, and this is not something that is divided by opinion. Therefore, this recent comment serves to ridicule Obama’s original statement about Martin. This snide attempt to ridicule Obama is appalling, because it serves to undermine Alexis and his history of mental illness. Alexis “could’ve” been Obama’s son, because even people with schizophrenia have parents, and threat or not, Martin is now dead, after having only a very brief life. This kind of commentary only serves to obfuscate the real issues.
Whenever these type of tragedies come to pass, as they do all too frequently, there’s always mental illness or a mental disorder. Miriam Carey, the lady recently shot by police for driving her car into security barriers in DC, had suffered post-partum depression and psychosis. Adam Lanza, the teenager responsible for the Sandy Hook tragedy was diagnosed with Asperger’s and Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), and also had many articles about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer who shot dead many people, including children, on the island of Utoya in 2011. Figuring out how the disorder could have resulted in these acts is not always straight forward, but poor mental health is always there. Even with pathological serial killers, the brain is different from everybody else. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that anytime a person’s natural in-built capacity for empathy fails completely, there is probably a disorder or the potential for a disorder present. This does not necessarily mean that an act of violence will result, but the chances have certainly increased.
One last thing I would like to comment upon is the term ‘isolated event’. Often after a mass shooting or an event that included the dangerous behavior of a citizen, you often see police officials or the media saying that it was an isolated event. I think this serves at least two purposes. Firstly, it lets us know that it wasn’t the result of terrorism, and there aren’t going to be similar acts to follow. And secondly, it bolsters the idea that the person responsible has been neutralized and will not commit further atrocities. I would like to contend that none of these events are isolated. They may not be the result of terrorism, but the issue of mental illness is behind all of them. Together, these events suggest that there is a tremendous ignorance and ineptitude regarding the mentally ill, and as mental illness can impact any of us at any time (either personally or by the actions of others), we need to stop looking at it as some weird anomaly that happens to other people, and start treating it as a human, national problem.