Monday, December 17, 2012

Sandy Hook and Mental Illness - What Will Change?

Some amazing people died on Friday.  Most of them probably didn't know they were amazing.  They thought they were normal people doing normal things.  They were going through their regular lives and learning what they could.  The children were enjoying the change of the season and the holiday vibes in the air.  The adults were doing much the same, but probably with a slightly more hurried approach.

And then it happened.  Their lives ended and their families lives changed forever.  For most of us, a little something changed too.

Right now we are hearing a lot of political posturing.  Gun laws will be introduced, and viciously fought within the hallowed halls of our government.  Security will be reviewed and changed within our schools.  People will feel a little less secure in the world, but eventually we will heal.

I have also heard a lot about the shooter's mental status and his possible diagnosis.  I have heard rumblings of fear and distrust for those with mental illness.  I have also heard pleas for understanding from families of those with mental illness.

Mental illness is a strange beast.  Unlike other illnesses, society mainly believes that people choose this as an option.  They give advice like "buck up" or "choose to be happy" and expect people to just get better.  People would never tell a diabetic to think happy insulin thoughts, but apparently it is sound advice for those with mental illness.

At the very base, mental illness is the inability to make and/or process the correct chemicals in the brain.  The theories on why this happens are vast, but definitive answers still elude us.  Those who suffer from mental illness do not literally have what it takes to be happy/sad/calm/socially appropriate/(enter adjective here).  They want to be "normal," but often the behaviors associated with these chemical differences make that impossible.

In case you are wondering, mental illness is not a result of bad parenting, a lapse of religious practice, television, video games, low IQ, or lack of love.  It is a medical condition that changes how their bodies make and use specific chemicals to regulate the brain, and the resulting side effects alter mood and behavior.  They didn't do this to themselves, they didn't ask for it, and they certainly can't "snap out of it."

For some reason society looks at mental illness as a personal failing.  I can't imagine society thinking leukemia was a personal flaw, but mental illness is viewed by many as the end result of a weak person unable to learn to be normal.  I'm not sure how we got there, but we did, and now we are suffering the consequences.

Mental illness is a subject I know far too much about.  This is neither the time nor the place for me to list all the things about mental illness I wish I never needed to know, but trust me, the list is long.  For children, there is almost no research and very few answers.  Critics say mental illness in children is just an excuse for parents to medicate away bad parenting choices.  For a few sad cases that may be true, but I can tell you that for the vast majority of parents, treatment and medication of any kind is a decision made only after all other options have been exhausted.

People wonder about this young man who committed such a horrible crime.  They immediately jump to mental illness as the reason.  I will agree that there was some seriously disturbed thinking involved with his choices, but my fear is that we will connect the concept of mental illness to mass murder, when in fact that is a significantly erroneous view.

Are there mentally ill patients who are violent? Of course.  Are there non mentally ill people who are violent?  Of course.  The numbers show that mentally ill people are more often the victims than the perpetrators of violence. For some reason that fact doesn't change the perception. 

Mental illness impacts the lives of millions of people and their families every day.  I bet you would be hard pressed to not think of one person you know who suffers from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, or autism, just to name a few diagnoses. (Before you yell about the last one, there are brain chemistry components to autism as well, so it does fit the definition used here.)  Each of these individuals have families that love them and these disorders impact their lives as well.  This adds up to millions of people suffering.

You can make this better.  If you are young and inclined, you could go into child psychiatry or psychiatric research.  We need caregivers and we need researchers.  If you are wealthy or well connected, you could help start or fund research.  If you are friends with those impacted, you can offer your support and spend the time needed to really be there for them.  If you are a family member, you can speak up and tell people about the disorders your family deals with.  You can make your reality more readily accessible to society.  If you are dealing with mental illness yourself, you can tell your story.  You can share your thoughts and your feelings.  You can give insight into your life and experience.  You can normalize your struggles. 

Sandy Hook is a disaster that has changed us.  What those changes are, and how long will they last still remain to be seen.  As we bandy about theories about mental illness, I suggest we consider one thing, mental illness has been a shameful topic for as long as history has kept records.  It will continue to be shameful as long as we chose to be ashamed.  On behalf of my loved ones who stand up to this challenge every day, I will not be ashamed.

Mental illness is a medical condition and not a commentary on self worth.  I pledge to do my part to find answers, and I pledge to make a difference.

I hope you can do the same.


  1. Thank you for this post. I have to admit that I was afraid of mental illness, the discussion, the idea of people around me being ill, the whole bit. Until March of last year when my husband was diagnosed bipolar. I cried, I felt devastated, then I realized I had fallen in love with a man who has been mentally ill since long before I knew him. I just so happens that we found out why he acted in certain ways after a couple of VERY caring health care professionals helped him. I started doing my research and realized there are a whole lot of people in our country who we look up to that also happen to have a mental illness. We NEED to get the word out there that there is nothing to be afraid of. People with mental illnesses need HELP, not to be shunned. I honestly believe that mental illness should be treated whether a person can afford the health care or not. We need to make people understand that getting help does not make one worth less. In fact, life can be so much more fulfilling once a mental illness is treated. I believe if we start there we can change and save lives. I definitely stand with you and pledge to make a difference!

  2. Karen,

    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your story and your willingness to stand up and tell it. Allowing the mainstream media to write our story is contributing to the problem. We each have valuable and moving stories to tell. Once again, I'm glad you shared. Let's hope a few more people want to share their experiences as well. Together, we can change this.