Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mental Illness on the National Stage

The shootings in Arizona (and the recent school shootings in Nebraska that did not receive much national attention) (see: were sad for those involved as well as for our nation.  I hope that all involved can endure the pain of their losses and find strength as a result. 
My condolences also go to the parents of Jared Laughner, the alleged shooter.  Their pain, shame, and guilt must be tremendous; particularly as they ponder their contributions to his behavior- as we all do when our offspring do something that is unacceptable.  In time, they may come to realize that, in fact, they are not nearly as responsible as they likely think they are.  I hope that they can endure their pain and find strength also.

I am troubled by the national discussion that Mr. Laughner is mentally ill and that he somehow “slipped between the cracks.” No one bothers to define what they mean by “mental illness” so the analysis is particularly specious.  Further, this kind of analysis is wrong on so many levels.  As best I can tell, there seems to be an assumption that only mentally ill people could shoot innocent people in this manner. (Note that we never called the 9/11 perpetrators mentally ill, but rather “terrorists.”  The national discussion after the Columbine shootings labeled Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as mentally ill also.  Maybe the difference in labeling is that foreigners (especially Muslims) are called terrorists while American killers are “mentally ill.”)

I do not make the assumption that someone who shoots another is mentally ill.  To me, it gives the vast majority of persons with mental illness a bad name.  In fact, people who shoot others are angry, disaffected, marginalized, lonely, unhappy people.  Even with all of that baggage, it does not make all shooters mentally ill.  I have read some of the material written by Laughner that the news media cite as evidence of mental illness.  So far, I have not seen anything that is particularly wild, paranoid, or out of touch.  He may seem angry, disaffected, marginalized, lonely, and unhappy, but so far, I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe he is mentally ill. Because he writes material that is esoteric or focuses on out-of-the-mainstream thought also does not justify calling him mentally ill.  In fact, I was listening to NPR the other day and heard a discussion of poetry on the Krista Tippet “Being” show.  I am way too concrete a thinker to understand poetry and the satisfaction people get from reading it.  But Tippet and her guest talked about poetry in ways that I thought was esoteric and possibly outside of the mainstream.  Tippet kept using the term “the other” to reference people who are different.  If I were like so many discussing the Arizona shooter, I might call Tippet mentally ill, which is likely very untrue. 

If we allow ourselves to tie up Mr. Laughner in a little package called “mentally ill”, we will miss the bigger picture about how people become shooters, for example, what are the political, cultural and societal issues that permit shooting to be an acceptable way to deal with grievances.  We know that there are a myriad of individual, social, family, spiritual issues that make shooting acceptable, but those issues float within a cultural pool.  Let us not fail to address the larger issues while we focus only on the individual and his hypothesized mental illness. 

Finally, if Laughner is found, by competent authority, to be mentally ill, then may we not then say that “he fell through the cracks.”  In fact, there may have been nothing in his behavior that was remarkable (except when people apply present facts to interpret past behavior) that would have caused him to come into contact with a social service agency.  There may have been no cracks to fall through.  Let’s not blame the mental health safety net for somehow failing to see the raging demons in Laughner when there may not have been any that were visible. 

It’s just too easy for us to let ourselves off the hook by saying that shooters like Laughner, Kelbold, and Harris are mentally ill.  To do so says that we want to only hold “sick” individuals responsible rather than examining our own roles in setting the occasion for these tragedies to happen.  Maybe we have no collective guilt, but if we do, let’s be sure we find out why and address it so that situations like Arizona, Nebraska, and Columbine don’t happen again. 

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