When a tragedy happens like yesterday’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut with 20 year-old Adam Lanza opening fire on his mother’s class of kindergarteners, the mental health community holds its collective breath. It waits, hoping that the tragedy did not emanate from a person with a history of mental health issues. It suspects—at least I do—that it is only a matter of time until investigators show the signs were there.
Red flags flapping in the wind that nobody quite knew what to make of or where to turn to make them stop. An anger building, over symptoms not understood and taunted by society as a weakness in character…met with structural solutions, weak at best, if the person and family can even shoe-up to walk down that road.
And my heart aches. For the children and adults who were lost in this trauma. For the surviving children, and the impact on their future mental health. For Adam Lanza. For his wrongly accused brother, Ryan Lanza, who had to set things right on Facebook. (How awkward was that?) For the parents, siblings, grandparents who’ve lost their babies, and the journey ahead for all they touch. For the community, state, our country, the world.
Mental health advocacy groups share a solemn knowing. They are hyper-aware of a culture that treats mental illness like the plague, rather than treating it with compassion as other illnesses like cancer, Diabetes, or Muscular Dystrophy. Nobody sends flowers when a bipolar diagnosis is made. Instead, children are warned. Blinds are closed. Families are isolated.
Why does it suddenly become a moral issue, a parenting issue, a character flaw just because the brain is involved? Is it appropriate to call someone with Diabetes a name because they have a sensitivity to glucose? Why, then, as a culture, are we so comfortable throwing out words like crazy, psycho, insane and setting up structures that make it nearly impossible for people experiencing mental health issues to get help without hiring a task force to unravel the structural labyrinth?
Stigma is alive and well despite the efforts of such great organizations as Glenn Close’s Bring Change 2 Mind, The Balanced Mind Foundation, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I recently was invited to sit in a mental health meeting discussing MHSA funds (the California millionaire’s tax) for early education curriculum. A mental health professional in the room actually said, “Oh, we can’t talk to elementary aged children about mental illness.”
Are you kidding me? That’s like saying, “We can’t talk to our elementary children about drugs.” What year are we living in when the state required curriculum on health (take sixth grade in California, for example) has 20 lessons talking about health and nobody discusses mental health? If that doesn’t comment on a culture who is moving too slowly, I don’t know what does. When a brave teacher finally does incorporate mental health education, even a lesson or two, inevitably 6 kids stand up in the class and self-identify, helping to build empathy, compassion, and education in their peers. And those peers grow up to be 20 years old.
With curriculum successfully working in other states and with free programs to the schools like NAMI’s Parents and Teachers as Allies, schools that turn their collective eyes away from educating a new generation about mental health play a part in these tragedies. We all pay the price one way or another.
It’s time to wake up. These are high prices to pay to continue on the path we are walking. Whether or not Adam Lanza turns out to have had warnings that his mental health needed attention, I think we can all agree the level of anger that would propel a young adult in this direction deserved some serious counseling. Somebody had to see that. If he was experiencing a first psychotic break, wouldn’t it have been helpful to know what that is for the people in his life and the people that can no longer live theirs?
Here’s the starting point. Educate yourself. Advocate educating others. Mental illness is a brain disorder and is treatable like any other illness. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes. Choose your words carefully and compassionately. Reach out. Smile. And if somebody needs mental health help, for the sake of everybody’s health, help them get it.