Looking the Right Way

The news over the last couple of days has been filled with information from the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., where a man apparently opened fire and ended up killing 13 people including himself.

As our society and news media has been trained to do by these now all too frequent events, we’re asking the basic question: why did this happen?

The world is learning more about this man, and once you start to piece things together, you find information pointing to a glaring problem that seems common to most mass shootings: he had a problem people were unwilling or unable to help him with.

This country, through societal norms, pop culture, and the like, have tried embracing mental illness and tried casting it in the light that is needed: it’s an illness and needs to be treated seriously, professionally, and with compassion. But at the same time, there’s a strong undercurrent that marginalizes these people, calling them crazy or disturbed or sick, while completely ignoring their legitimate symptoms–this guy reported to the police his own paranoid delusions, including hearing voices–and allowing them to go back into the world untreated. In addition, it’s hard to get treatment: those with these problems, especially as the symptoms get worse, are frequently not in a position to pay for the expensive treatments needed.

How long do we let this happen?

It’s my belief, as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety that went untreated for a long time, that nearly everyone who suffers from mental illness has some capacity to understand that what they’re feeling isn’t what they’re meant to be feeling. I also believe that nearly all of them want to be treated so that they can get out from under that cloud that hangs in their head day after day.

Yet at the same time, society has put a stigma on being “different,” or “weird,” and even shuns those who suffer from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or other mental issues. Hell, I can’t even begin to tell you how horrible it felt to not only have these things going on in my head, but then to add to it the guilt and pressure of feeling the shame of needing treatment, and the desire to just be “normal” again. Take that a step further with people like the man in Monday’s shooting, or other mass shootings: what must it feel like when you are having these feelings a problems, do the right thing and ask for help, but then get ignored either because the “system” or society aren’t set up to properly diagnose or give you the attention and treatment you desperately need?

I’m not giving them a free pass, mind you. I understand that when your mind is in such a state as that, you’re prone to doing horrible things. But there’s still that part of you in there that can still reason through things and hopefully control whatever darkness is pushing so hard to get out, but then again, rationale gets blown way out of proportion when you’re in such internal conflict. God knows I did some really stupid things for equally stupid reasons, and even though I knew some of them were wrong, I could reason past it to make myself think it had to be done. Thankfully, none of it involved physically hurting people.

Think about this, though. We’re trained to ignore the mentally ill. You can see someone on a street corner downtown who might be talking to himself, or ranting out loud about some nonsensical thing, and scores of people will pass them by. And the primary reason, I think, isn’t because we don’t want to help, rather that we can’t help: is it reasonable to take that person to a doctor just when you’re passing them? Stop and talk to them to see what the problem is and call the police or ambulance to have them committed to a clinic they can check themselves out of in just a few days? Hand them some of your anti-depression medication?

It’s a difficult question that I don’t think anyone wants to answer. Western society has conditioned itself to approach everything even vaguely medical as a problem that can be corrected with medication. But you can’t just give people who are violently disturbed medication and send them on their way. And the way we’ve configured our mental illness treatment system, the choice is only one of a couple of options: get checked into a psych ward for evaluation, and maybe some longer-term treatment, or get your drugs and an outpatient course of periodic counseling.

Mental illness isn’t like heart disease, or a broken arm, or cancer. Even though it may be just as dangerous to the patient, it needs different treatment. Ours is a society that has people shaving their heads to show support for cancer patients. But where is similar support for someone suffering from depression? It’s nowhere because we don’t talk about it. We isolate those with mental illness, because it’s easier for everyone to treat that way. We can joke about it in TV and movies, offer up some ad campaign to tell people to reach out, but in the end, we still stigmatize those who suffer because they’re different than the “rest of us.”

Outside of my immediate family, there is an extremely small group of people who know about my own illness, let alone about the 8+ years of active treatment, and four-plus more of periodic treatment and check-ins I’ve experienced. I don’t want to share it. I don’t want to admit to it. And if any of my friends or coworkers have the same or similar problems as I, they’re not sharing it, either. So we don’t have any common ground from which to support each other, even though we might all be in a much less isolated place than we think.

Yet we’re much more willing to talk about having cancer, or having high blood pressure, or diabetes, or even sleep problems.

The man in Monday’s shooting was, by all accounts, a nice, caring, affable person who has left a lot of people questioning what went wrong. Hopefully, they’re not blaming themselves, but I fear it’s probably inevitable. 12 souls are gone, taken from this world by a darkness no one really understands. Families are broken and suffering from the loss. And all we can do is ask “why,” not “what can we do to stop this?” And we won’t ever discuss the real suffering behind it all. Because we aren’t willing to talk about it, except to label the suspect as “disturbed.”

See you tomorrow.