February 21, 2013

As yet another violent massacre occurs in our country—this one involving children, so it makes it all the harder to take—I pause to think about it, as I have done so often since the news broke on Dec. 14, 2012. During the chaos, ABC had on a senior medical correspondent, who was an M.D., stating that the tragedy and the gunman was “the face of mental illness.” I immediately took offense. Really? We knew virtually nothing about the shooter at the time, let alone whether or not he had a diagnosed mental illness. Yet, here was the media, already branding him the face of a disease that affects 57.7 million people in our country alone. That's a lot of “faces” that he is supposedly representing.

It may come out, as the news continues to unfold, that mental illness did a play a role. Right now, we just don't know. As an organization, we are putting out the statistics to fight the stigma that will no doubt be a backlash from this tragedy—that people who have mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator; that the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small; and that it is important that we not make assumptions or speculate as to what the role of mental illness played in this situation at this time.

However, it's hard for us as a society not to speculate, not to make assumptions as to the sanity of a person who would willingly shoot his own mother and then go into a school and shoot kids and the adults trying to protect them. It's hard for us not to jump to the conclusion that this was a “crazed gunman” who, at the end, took his own life.

NAMI says that mental illness is an illness like any other. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illness is a disorder of the brain. However, right now, I find myself questioning that. Is mental illness truly “an illness like any other?” Does diabetes make a person want to harm themselves or others? Does high blood pressure distort messages in the mind and make a person feel that they are called to kill? Does cancer create voices that drive a person to crime?

Or, is this type of behavior unique to mental illness? Is mental illness, rather, “an illness like none other?” And should it be treated as such? Maybe it is, indeed, a very special illness that requires very special treatment. One that requires early prevention and intervention and that treatment should be wholly available to anyone who needs it.

I have mental illness. I have not killed myself or anyone else, but I have caused harm. Not criminal harm, but harm nonetheless in the form of self-abuse and, at times, adversely affecting those who love me. At times, I have been very upfront in sharing my journey with mental illness. Other times, in certain circles of people, I have pretended that portion of my journey just doesn't exist. Maybe that needs to change.

If any good can come out of the Newtown tragedy, it may be that mental health will be front and center on the nation's agenda. Treating mental illness, talking about mental illness, confronting issues that affect mental health will take as much precedence as treating and talking about other physical health disorders.

But, in order for that to happen, mental illness needs to come out of the closet, out of the darkness, out of the impenetrable silence. We need to be able to simply talk about it in our country, in our state, our neighborhoods, and our families.

The President has now called for a national dialogue on mental illness, which is supposed to be launched this spring. His proposal includes:

  • Early identification and intervention including training for teachers, school resource officers and others in a position to spot the signs of mental illness and provide assistance.
  • Steps for improving mental health and substance abuse treatment for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25.
  • Finalizing mental health parity regulations for health insurance.
  • Training more than 5,000 additional mental health professionals to serve students and young adults.
  • Launching efforts to improve understanding of mental illness and the importance of mental health treatment.

These are all wonderful intentions; the test will be whether the President, Congress and state governments follow through. For if mental health is not talked about, the downside of it is that the problems don't go away. Rather they can go underground, growing and festering until they come out the other side as something unrecognizable, unfathomable, and yes, tragic.

The good news is that we know mental illness is treatable—in that way it is an illness like many others. We can't cure it yet, but living in recovery is possible. Remission is possible; as is relapse. It requires close monitoring and support, and often medications and counseling.

Like Type 1 diabetes, dealing with mental illness is a lifelong process. Unlike diabetes, mental illness can cause some odd beliefs and behavior, but it is still manageable; tricky, sometimes, but ultimately treatable.

And this is where the conversation should be headed.

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