CONTRIBUTORS

Fearing mental illness doesn’t make us safer

Posted Jan. 07, 2013, at 1:07 p.m.

I was heartbroken when I heard about the Connecticut school shootings. I hold my kids and principal chums a lot closer. I grieve for the innocent children and courageous adults. I want so much for our sons and daughters to be safe in school without seeing the trek to kindergarten as an excursion into a war zone.

However, the search for one cause and solution scares me every bit as much as an AK-47 in the wrong hands. It may indeed make our children less safe in the long run. Let me give you an example.

Predictably one of the first questions asked was whether Adam Lanza was autistic. That was the point at which I started counting key phrases. I came to two conclusions. First, we are once again going to scapegoat people with psychological challenges. Second, “helping” in this context often comes across as keeping them away from the rest of us.

Here’s what seems to sum it all up: the mentally ill. Let’s put this in perspective. We are a rapidly fattening nation with a proliferation of obesity related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. But we don’t say the physically ill. Why is the first phrase commonplace and the second unheard of?

We fear mental illness in a way we don’t fear physical illness. It’s the bogeyman in our closets and under our beds. Perhaps we use this phrase as our talisman. These people are distinctly different from us. The totality of their existence can be summed up in three words. Therefore, they could never be me or someone I love.

Let’s sum it up. We live in a society with an “us-them” mindset about mental health. We’re willing to demonize and ostracize those we see as the “other.” Are people who see a need for help more likely to seek it? Are their families less likely to cover for them? I don’t think so.

Then there’s this other little foible in how our nation addresses mental health issues. We do not have the will to make meaningful change. We popularize pills as quickly as big pharma can concoct them. Kids who haven’t memorized their times tables can tell you the names of antidepressants. But what we are willing to spend to expand the availability of help makes the lifeboat situation on the Titanic look benign.

Mass shootings are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things going horribly wrong. Some people take out family members. In Maine folks are far more likely to die at the hands of loved ones than of strangers. Probably most of those who have lost the ability to hope or care fire that gun only once. Someone I loved did this. He left three children to grow up without a father. He left parents, siblings and friends faced with unthinkable questions.

Then there are the many people who live lives of quiet desperation. They are our seniors who don’t want to be a bother, who think that depression is an intrinsic part of growing old. They are our type-A achievers at the prime of their careers who can’t contemplate taking it a bit slower or seeing themselves apart from what they do for work. They are our daughters looking at gaunt bodies and seeing obesity. They are our sons telling us what they will be if, not when, they grow up.

In a world where exposure to media violence and Madison-Avenue sexualization are widespread, they all too often are our very young children.

If we are honest they are sometimes us.

For all our sakes, don’t we need to do better?

This is the bottom line. We all want and deserve for our children — and those into whose care we entrust them — to be safe. We want and deserve to be safe. If we continue to stigmatize and see the safety issue as one that can only be solved by legislation, we will be horrified every few years.

We will only have made real progress toward this worthy goal when our “us-them” society becomes one of “we” — with real concern for each other and the mature understanding that mental health must be an ongoing discussion as long as human beings roam the face of the Earth.

Julia Emily Hathaway is a mother of three, freelance writer and amateur actress. She and a graphic artist chum are getting a poetry book ready for publication.

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