Talk about mental health – but let's do it accurately | Celina Kareiva | Reporter's Notebook

Celina Kareiva - Reporter file photo
Celina Kareiva
— image credit: Reporter file photo

My grandmother Evelyn was known for her occasional tempers. She once pitched the family TV set out the upstairs window, and could sink into such dark depressions that she would not get out of bed for weeks at a time. But her compassion, spirit and utter zest for life eclipsed even her deepest lows.

Sometimes she was seized by such a spurt of creativity that she would hustle all of the kids outside, and on a whim, start building a chicken coop or a well in the backyard. Grandma Evelyn was bipolar – a condition that 50 years ago was little understood and even more difficult to treat. But Evelyn’s diagnosis far from defined her. She was, above all, a beloved and incredibly compassionate person.

When news of the Sandy Hook shooting first broke, my heart went to the families and community affected by the horrendous tragedy. But moments later as reports surfaced, and journalists inevitably began digging for information about the monster behind the 26 deaths, my thoughts turned to my own friends and loved ones – not because I feared for their safety, but because I could already see the tenuous link between mental illness and mass murder, starting to take shape. The shooter was immediately cast as a deranged loner, who took greater interest in video games than he did his peers.

Countless officials, “experts,” even parents raising children with similar symptoms spoke out on what they believed was a definite case of mental illness. But to this day, no known correlation has been made. (Retrospective diagnosis is faulty at best, and even autism, which has been repeatedly linked to the shooter, is a disorder, not a mental illness).

The Sandy Hook shooting has been covered from every angle imaginable. And as a country we will have to find a balance between honoring those who died, and allowing ourselves, and the community of Newtown, Conn., to move on. Tragedy should not have to be the catalyst for a better understanding of mental illness, but if it is the reason for it suddenly being in the spotlight, let’s approach this topic with accuracy and sympathy for those lives touched by it.

As the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in the days afterward, the contribution of mental disorders to societal violence is small. Only four percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to it. Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violence than mental illness. If anything, aggression is often inward turned in the form of suicidal thoughts or actions.

And yet less than a week after the shooting, the NRA tried to detract from gun debates by calling for an active national database of everyone living with mental illness. A petition on the White House website demanded an investigation into the link between psychiatric medication and violence. (Fortunately it was blocked within a week).

There is a natural desire to understand why, but if one in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year, we risk ostracizing a quarter of our population. Stigma is a pernicious and powerful force. Part of the reason for poor mental health care, is because individuals are ashamed to come forward. Less than a third are able to get treatment, and one unequivocal factor is the prejudice and discrimination bred by such stigma.

In the days after the Sandy Hook shooting, several of my closest friends and loved ones living with mental illness (remember, it touches one in four Americans), grieved like the rest of the world. But they also worried that misguided, the ensuing conversation would push the problem further underground. Sarah, who had never told her parents that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder her second year of college, had been working up the courage to do so. Now, she worried her secret wasn’t even safe with them.

So while honoring those lives lost, let’s also take the opportunity to accurately and empathetically approach mental health talks. Contrary to most headline news, many mental health disorders are characterized by an incredible human compassion. The dubious link between violence and mental health is incredibly damaging.


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