Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mental Illness Isn't Violence (But Our Systems Sure Are Sick), Pt. I

I have been trying to write this post for more than a week now. It's been a very difficult one to write. And then it was getting very long. So, I have divided it into two posts. Part I looks at the inaccurate public perception of a connection between mental illness and mass violence. Part II looks more closely at systems.

Even as I share this post, I am mindful of the fact that for those directly affected by violence, no think piece and no blog post can address the pain they are going through. For a lot of people, the world feels like it has ended right now. Let's try to honor that with our words, our reflection, and our action.

First, here is how it goes for me.

I hear the news, or see it in that early morning social media check that I keep telling myself I should stop doing.

“Oh, no,” I say, softly, to myself.

I try to stop for a second, before I react, before I think. It rarely works, but I try. I try to just shut up for a second. To extend some empathy, some compassion out into the universe. I try to imagine the unimaginable. I try to feel, just for a moment, some of the terror that the people on the scene must have felt. It is a vain attempt, of course. I try, and fail, anyway.

“There’s been another one.” How terrible to be able to say that, “another one.” Another name, another place, in the litany of mass shootings in this country. “Another one.” How blasphemous that we keep saying that. How horrific.

“The deadliest.” We say that again, too. Of course, it’s only true if we ignore other horrors, other massacres whose blood is still dried on our hands. But even if we add some qualifiers, I wish we’d stop saying “the deadliest.” Every bullet that invades a fleshly home, that kicks down the doors of skin to stop a heart and break countless more. Every sacrifice to this false God is the deadliest for someone,
some family,
some child,
some friend.

The deadliest, the deadliest. Who cares about the number when the blood is still drying on the pavement? That day, whatever day it was, whether children, or Bible-studying elders, or concertgoers, that day the clocks stopped for someone for whom that day will always be the deadliest.

The deadliest. I react to that.

And then I wait.

And I don’t usually have to wait long. To be informed by some “source” or another that --
Since this killer was white
And a male
And we can find no way to blame his violence on people we are killing in much larger numbers than this latest massacre --
he must be insane.

"Mentally ill," they say, as if using medical language makes the insinuation feel less like a knife in my already twisted gut.

And I breathe in sharply. And the tension rises in my chest. And I let myself feel the hurt in my body. In my bones where, I imagine, I can still feel my sickness, even though it hurts me less right now, scares me less. Just for a moment. Just for a moment.

Hold the silence.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Breathe in.

I have a mental illness. That's something you likely know, if you've been on this page before. If not, that's ok, I'll name it again. I have bipolar disorder. Type II, if you're into those kind of details. This does not make me statistically more likely to commit a violent act than anyone else (and not just because I'm an aspiring pacifist). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people with serious mental illnesses. The same source reports that people with severe mental illness are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than other folks. Here's the link, if you're curious. And yet, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins, more than one out of two articles on popular news sites that mention mental illness also mention violence, fueling (and being fueled by) a public perception that mental illness correlates with violence. I've seen this correlation play out personally: at my seminary, after students pushed the administration to provide more resources related to mental health and mental illness, one of the first responses of the administration was to provide training for RAs on dealing with someone with a mental illness who, you guessed it, was acting violently. Despite the inaccuracy of this perception, and its stigmatizing nature, it's proven to have a lot of staying power.

There's a few important clarifications to make about this general information. One is just that there's really not one thing called "mental illness" -- there's a bunch of different diagnoses, which in turn are based on a bunch of different presenting symptoms. In my book, which is coming out soon, I write about diagnoses as stories we tell to make sense of human experiences, an idea some people might be surprised to learn I got from one of my psychiatrists. But anyway. Some of these particular diagnoses do include as particular symptoms feelings or urges or compulsions toward violence. This is really important to acknowledge, because these types of feelings can be super scary, and silence and stigma around them can keep people from seeking help.

When I admitted myself into the hospital back in 2011, I was asked several times during the admissions process if I felt like I wanted to hurt myself (I most certainly did, which is why I was there) and if I wanted to hurt anyone else (I did not, though I made a snarky remark about my internet service provider). Those questions are standard because mental health struggles can sometimes include these kind of thoughts. In my case, these compulsions were (and are, though now I've got much better coping tools) directed toward myself. That's not the case for everyone. These kind of urges and compulsions are very scary for people. They're called "intrusive thoughts" because that's just what they do: intrude, invade even, a mind that does not want them there. If you or someone you know is having scary, intrusive thoughts like that, reach out for help. There are a few resources in the sidebar; you can always email me if you need more. 

But having intrusive thoughts is not the same thing as going out and buying dozens of firearms and then meticulously planning a mass shooting. And while some mass shootings have been carried out by people with mental illnesses, since mental illness is actually relatively common in the general population (about 1 in 5 people have some form of diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lifetime), the number isn't really statistically significant.

Do you know what is statistically significant in these cases?

White men with guns. That's what's statistically significant.

We'll get back to that.

Another important clarification I want to make here involves a sort of instinct or gut feeling that people have when such a shooting occurs, which is articulated sort of like this: "Whether or not this person had some sort of diagnosis or not, surely a mentally healthy person would not do something like this?" There's a certain logic to this--shouldn't being willing to shoot hundreds of people in and of itself constitute some sort of unhealthy mindset?

There are problems with this reasoning. For one thing, it's a circular argument: if you define "willing to commit violence" as a mental health problem, then ta-da, every act of violence is committed by someone with a mental health problem. The premise supports itself. It's begging the question.

More important than that, though, the actual effect such reasoning has is to (a) stigmatize those with mental illness, (b) give us an easy out from having difficult conversations about guns, (c) dodge all the other issues involved such as toxic masculinity and white supremacy, all while (d) not actually helping people with mental health issues, because -- and this is important -- if we only bring up the brokenness of this country's mental health care system after a shooting, we make zero progress and just reinforce the stigma that prevents us from making progress in the first place. 

Image from "Mind Your Mind"

But -- and here's the clarification, which gets us, I think, closer to the crux of the matter -- there's some wisdom in wanting to name mass violence as a mentally (and emotionally and spiritually, not to mention physically) unhealthy thing. If we want to talk about violence as form of illness, a form of dis-ease, that's fine. Let's talk about it. It's just that mental illness, which deals with an individual's struggle with experiences that prevent them from functioning the way they want to function, is exactly the wrong category for such a naming. Rather, violence represents a systemic un-health, an interaction between an individual and larger forces that are harmful, that are in-and-of-themselves violent. Paul called them "the powers and principalities."

Such unhealthy systems do very much impact our health, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. But that doesn't mean they can be diagnosed by pathologizing an individual's violent actions.

Mental illness isn't violence. But violence might well be an illness, and a systemic one at that. We've got some very sick systems that we're operating in and amongst, and perhaps they are indeed in need of diagnoses. 


Part II of this post will look at a systems perspective and examine some of the systems that are at play in 'diagnosing' violence.

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