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Guest Post: Newtown

Posted Dec 17 2012 9:03pm
As those reading this are likely already aware, on Friday the 14th at around 9:30am, a man armed with various rifles entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in small, bucolic Newtown, CT and fatally shot 27 people, of which 20 were children between the ages of five and ten. Like most Americans, I was and am stunned and devastated by the news. Whenever a child's life is cut short, especially in such a brutal and heinous manner, we cannot help but grieve not just for who they were, but for all that they never had the chance to become. We grieve, as well, for the adults who dedicated their careers and, ultimately, sacrificed their lives for the children they were charged with educating and protecting. In this difficult time, our thoughts, support and love are with all of those impacted by the shooting, as they struggle to begin the seemingly insurmountable task of adjusting to a new reality that is helplessly incomplete without many of their neighbors, friends and loved ones.

In the midst of a tragedy as jarring as this, it is natural to wonder how a human being could do something so violent and so horrific. We feel the need to understand why and how an event such as this could occur. We feel driven to attempt to make sense of what seems to be senseless. We do this to help us process, to understand and to compartmentalize so that we can find a way to push through our terror and function. Unfortunately, this wondering often leads us to make assumptions about the killer and any population he or she may or may not be a part of that not only cannot be substantiated; but that also have the potential to be harmful and stigmatizing to others in the group he or she is speculated to belong to. With mass shootings, this tends to be those suffering from psychiatric illnesses, especially Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. Indeed, less than 24 hours after the gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary school, pundits and viewers alike were already lining up to point the finger at mental illness -- demanding that those “crazies” be legislatively banned from owning a firearm and crying out that people like “them” not be allowed to walk the streets – and they have shown no sign of letting up; battle cries made before even a quarter of the events and circumstances leading up to all of this have been discovered or revealed.

To be clear, it is possible for psychiatric disorder to lead to violence, including violence on a mass scale. As we have seen with the Tuscon and Aurora shootings, severe, untreated psychotic illness can lead a person to commit heinous and unspeakable acts. When that happens, we need to sit down and launch a serious investigate to see if the deficits of out mental health care system led us to missing opportunities to help these shooters before they took the lives of others. It is also true, however, that these cases, as devastating as they are, are a rare minority. The vast majority of persons diagnosed with a mental illness are not violent and, when one looks at the statistics, less than 10% of all violent crime committed in the United States can be attributed to mentally ill offenders. In fact, someone with a mental health condition is more at risk for becoming a victim of crime than the perpetrator of it and are 11 times more likely to be victimized than the general population (compared to a mere 3% higher likelihood of becoming violent. To provide perspective on that, being male increases your risk of becoming violent significantly more, with males being 10 times more likely to commit murder and 6 times more likely to commit non-fatal assaults than non-males. Should we vilify and draw conclusion on the entire male population based upon that?). Even if, as some early reports are suggesting, the Newtown shooter had a mental illness, that does not automatically mean that said illness is the causative factor in his crimes. We must remember that those with mental illness are equally capable of making dangerous and catastrophic decisions as those without, separate from any pathology they may be suffering from; this is particularly true when one's illness does not impair their ability to discern what is real and what is right. In other words, just because someone with a mental health condition decides to rob, rape and/or kill, it does not mean they did so because of that condition; assuming so is both dehumanizing and stigmatizing to those with mental illness, as it implies that their mental illness is their defining feature, that they are incapable of experiencing the full range of human thought, emotion, flaw and ability, and paints an image of the mentally ill as dangerous and deranged. Yet, despite all of this, the media insists on continuing its representation of mass murderers as mentally ill and of the mentally ill as mass murderers.

As someone who has suffered from a serious mental illness for most of my life, it is difficult to see myself portrayed in such a way, especially knowing that image – of a deranged and homicidal mentally ill killer – is one shared by many, if not most, Americans. It is difficult to know that, if I were to go up to them and tell them my 'secret', these Americans would cease to see me as a human being equally complex as any of them and instead fear me to be a cold-blooded killer who could go off at any moment. In their eyes, I would be one of “those” people, undeserving of the same rights – to inclusion, to equal occupational and educational opportunity, to social and romantic to pursuits, to self-determination and to the assumption of innocence until proven guilty – and somehow inherently separate from them. They would fail to see my quirks, my humor, my passions, my blunders, my successes and my humanity. They would fail to see that there is no more separating them from me than there is separating them from the person suffering from chronic heart, autoimmune or lung disease; an illness-causing physiological or structural difference, nothing more. And we would both walk away from that interaction with nothing solved and nothing done to help understand why tragedies like this happen and what needs to be done to keep them from happening again.

Please, as you take steps to grieve this tragedy, I ask that you refrain from making assumptions about the shooter that cannot be substantiated; I ask that you not equate the actions of this shooter with the intentions of an entire population of people; I ask that you not vilify, demonize or outcast another human being; and I ask, above anything else, that you remember that nothing about this tragedy can be simplified to an issue of the struggles and actions of those people, as, at the end of the day, there are no those people, there is only us.

Thank you, Erika
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