Monday, November 6, 2017

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

This is the second part of a two-part post. 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. 

I Wish I Wasn't Writing This

I wish part II of this blog post wasn't so relevant.

I wish, I really wish, that there hadn't been another horrific mass shooting.

I wish, I really wish, that it didn't fall so closely on the heels of another horrific act of violence, and that there weren't such easy comparisons to make between the response to the former and the response to the latter.

That the latter is "sad" and "a mental health problem" while the former was "ISIS-inspired" and led to more calls to close the borders.

So clearly illustrating that when the killer is a white man, we scapegoat mental illness, and when the killer is a Muslim man, we scapegoat Islam, or immigrants, or both.

But the scapegoating and the individual pathologizing won't help, it won't stop this, and it will just lead to more hurt and more violence against already marginalized people.

Here's how I concluded my last post:
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. 
So, let's talk about systems. And if it seems to soon to talk about this in the wake of the shootings in Sutherland, TX, that's ok. Just assume this is a belated post about Manhattan. Or Las Vegas. Or...God dammit, really, sincerely: God damn the lengthy, blood soaked list. Let's talk about it now.

What We're Talking About When We Talk About Systems

Dr. Cedric C. Johnson, in his book Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age, writes about an "integrative approach" to soul care:
An integrative approach argues that understanding human functioning is not possible without comprehending the context in which it is formed as a subsystem within a matrix of interlocking historically situated systems. It entails assessing interpersonal dynamics, family systems, sociocultural systems outside the family, economic and political systems, as well as religious, spiritual, or other meaning-making systems. An integrative approach considers the potential influence these systems may have on those who come for care. It thus requires one to "think systems" at all times, even if the practitioner of care is seeing only one member of a family. Strategies for care are derived from an ongoing assessment of where and how to intervene, whether the practitioner is addressing interpersonal dynamics, family dynamics, or the larger systems within which the person or group exists (pg. 6).
Maybe that seems like a lot. Never fear! Dr. Johnson provides a helpful graphic:

From Race, Religion, and Resilience in the Neoliberal Age, pg. 7
The behaviors, strengths, and pathologies of an individual are impacted by the multiple systems they operate in, and vice versa.

This, by the way, is true even for folks who really do have a diagnosable mental illness. Here's John Swinton writing in his book Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems:
Mental health problems are incredibly complex phenomena that occur to human beings, who are themselves highly complex creatures. Because of this, there can be no such thing as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, or any other form of mental health problem, apart from the person who is experiencing it....Likewise, there can be no such thing as a person apart from the particular communities within which the person exists.....Mental health problems, rather than being definable in terms of biology or diagnosis, are an ultimately indefinable combination of pathology, personhood, and community; the aspects are inextricably interlinked. If we omit one from our caring equation, we risk misunderstanding the others (pg. 27).
In other words, even for folks who do indeed have a diagnosable mental health challenge, the diagnosis is only one aspect of a complex human, in community, impacted by systems. We can't just say, "X person had a mental illness" as if that explains their behavior or their personhood. It's an oversimplification, and an ineffective and stigmatizing one at that.

So when we're talking about systems, we're talking about the relationships, communities, and broader forces that impact (and are impacted by) the actions of individuals.

Sick Systems

So what are some of the systems whose sickness I think we should be diagnosing in order to prevent horrific acts of mass violence in this country?

Sick systems, not a sick person

Here is a by-no-means complete list:

Toxic Masculinity
The vast majority of acts of mass violence in this country (and, I would venture to guess, throughout the whole damn history of the whole damn globe) are committed by men. Men, particularly white men, commit the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. (here's one source on that). There's a strong correlation between men who commit acts of mass violence and a previous history of domestic violence or abuse against women (again, here's just one source on that). Why? Here's my friend Jay Yoder, writing a month ago:
Masculinity is all the ideas about what being a man means that we’ve decided as a culture are true and important and necessary. So: being a man means being strong, violent, aggressive. Being a man means being in charge. Etc. etc. etc. ....When we demand certain things of someone because of what gender we need them to be, and in the case of manhood, when we punish it with ridicule, shame, violence, degradation, humiliation (see frat rituals, team rituals, etc.), it creates a toxic masculinity that is bound up in and enforced by violence.
When we teach men, and before that, when we teach young boys, that being a man means being dominant, aggressive, and in control, this has consequences. When those young boys grow into men and find out that they can't, in fact, always be strong, always be in control, always win, this has consequences. Violent consequences.

White Supremacy, Race, and Racism
As already noted, mass shootings in the U.S. correlate not just with masculinity but, more often than not, with white masculinity. I've already written about white supremacy and violence after being in Charlottesville in August. My friend Alicia Crosby offers this definition of white supremacy, which stretches beyond the overt white nationalism of neo-Nazis and KKK members:
White supremacy establishes whiteness as superior to other racial identities through the elevation of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of white people over that of people of color. This includes the centering of the theological, rhetorical, aesthetic, and economic priorities and preferences rooted in whiteness as well as the appropriation and rebranding of cultural expressions sourced from people of color.
To this, I'd add that white supremacy teaches white people that we deserve to succeed, that we deserve to be in charge, that we are supposed to be the most successful and most important and the peak of civilization.

And then we aren't.

Then we fail at things, and we lose jobs, and we mess things up, and we're sort of mediocre most of the time just like most other people are, and because we've been taught (often subconsciously, sometimes overtly) that by virtue of the color of our skins we are supposed to be superior, and we don't feel very superior at all, we experience this unnamed type of shame. Stir that in with toxic masculinity and violence very quickly becomes a way to re-assert this felt need for control, for success, for extra-ordinary-ness, that is falsely promised to us by white supremacy. Which makes young white men susceptible not only to individual acts of violence, but to intentional radicalization and recruitment.

Radicalization and Recruitment in the Neoliberal Age
Here's just one article (from Vox) about the radicalization of white Americans, about how many of the people who are radicalized are perceived as, and experience themselves as, "losers," and how certain extremist groups can take advantage of that. After Charlottesville, my friend Julie Norman wrote in the Washington Post about her research on youth radicalization, drawing connections between her research with youth in the Middle East and North Africa and the Charlottesville attack. Julie and her research collaborator Drew Mikhael wrote:
From our focus groups, youths who were the most susceptible to radical messaging were those who perceived themselves to be politically and/or economically marginalized, resulting in a pervasive sense of purposelessness and lack of hope for the future. However, it was not poor socio-economic status itself that pointed toward susceptibility, but rather a sense of relative deprivation, coupled with feelings of political and/or social exclusion.
So if you've been told that you're supposed to be in control, and successful, and in charge, but instead you feel excluded, or like a failure, or like a loser...well, it's that much easier for you to radicalize yourself on the internet, or to be intentionally radicalized by a particular organization. The folks who are most susceptible to this are the cast-offs of the neoliberal age, the ones who have been promised much but offered little. And so they go looking for something that can provide them meaning, purpose, a sense of superiority or at least of value. Julie and Drew again:
Ideology matters, but not necessarily its core messaging, be it Islamic fundamentalism or white supremacy. Rather, radical groups use religion and ideologies to legitimize grievances, placing themselves as agents of change and promising empowerment and a sense of purpose.
And if you're looking for meaning and purpose and power, in this culture, there's no promise no alluring than the meaning-making power of violence.

A Culture of Violence, or, Violence as Meaning-Making System
Remember Dr. Johnson's handy diagram? The largest circle in the multi-systems model is "Religious, Spiritual, and Meaning-Making Systems." Ideologies such as white supremacy can fill this role; but I'd argue that in our country, violence itself functions as a meaning-making system. We could talk about theologian Walter Wink's work on "redemptive violence" here, or Chris Hedges' excellent book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, or any number of other pieces. We could talk here about an entertainment industry that relies on portrayals of violence to make sales. In a culture of violence, enactments of violence promise meaning, purpose, and power, obscuring the fact that violence gives none of those things. It just gives injury and death.

Gun Companies and War Profiteering
Of course, all of these factors are exacerbated and made more deadly by the ready availability of guns. Groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety lobby for legislative changes, which is important; but of course, the biggest obstacle they face is the big money available from the gun lobby and, behind that, from gun companies. The biggest guns in the room, literally and figuratively, are corporations that make billions off of selling weapons. And you know who the biggest buyer of weapons from private companies is? Why, the U.S. government. We've normalized war profiteering in this country. How are gun companies that sell personal firearms doing anything different than what the military industrial complex has been promoting on a massive, hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars scale? These are big, big, money making industries that make donations to political campaigns and lobby members of Congress. What's a few dozen dead church members or concertgoers against trillions of dollars?

The Stigmatizing and Scapegoating of Mental Illness
I wrote already in the previous post about the inaccurate representation of people with mental illnesses as violent. But I'd add to that, here, and say that the stigmatizing scapegoating of people with mental illnesses is itself an aspect of the violent systems at play in mass shootings. For one thing, people who genuinely do have a mental illness are discouraged from seeking help and sharing their pain by the stigma. For another thing, mental illness provides an easy scapegoat and a "pretend" response to violence -- we can easily talk about the invisible thing that is mental health, not do anything about it, and allow the violence to continue while patting ourselves on the back about our statements. How many people who talked about mental health after the Las Vegas shooting have genuinely rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work to fix the mental health care system in this country in the month since? Very few, I suspect. And of course, we then have a whole other set of overlapping systems we could talk about an analyze as far as mental health care in this country: insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, national legislation, lack of mental health parity, and more.

Multiple Systems Are Always at Play...So What Do We Do?

As I've already said, this isn't an exhaustive list of the systems at play, nor an exhaustive diagnosis of each of these systems. Multiple systems, visible and invisible, are always at play, impacting and being impacted by the actions of individuals. Which can seem very overwhelming. So, what do we do?

I've written before about self-care in a systems context, and how action at one level of a system affects the other component parts of a system. Remember Dr. Cedric C. Johnson's words: "Strategies for care are derived from an ongoing assessment of where and how to intervene, whether the practitioner is addressing interpersonal dynamics, family dynamics, or the larger systems within which the person or group exists" (Race, Religion, and Resilience, pg. 6-7, emphasis added). And Dr. John Swinton's words: "Mental health problems, rather than being definable in terms of biology or diagnosis, are an ultimately indefinable combination of pathology, personhood, and community; the aspects are inextricably interlinked. If we omit one from our caring equation, we risk misunderstanding the others" (Resurrecting the Person, pg. 27).

So. We think systems. We look at the many different systems impacting a particular person or situation, knowing that we might be missing things, that we probably can't understand the whole picture with 100% accuracy. And then we choose where to intervene, where to put energy, where to try to affect the system, while being mindful of the intersections and interactions between our interventions and other parts of the system.

Which means, if you want to advocate for better mental health care....please do!!!! I do. It's a big part of what I do.

But keep in mind the broader contexts. Look at how race and gender, how racism and sexism, impacts mental health. Understand how associating mental illness with violence re-inscribes stigma (see Part I of this blog post for more on that). Think systems, choose an intervention, act, look at the system again.

Mental illness isn't violence. But our systems do create a lot of violence, and our conversation about mental health and mental healthcare in this country ought to include an analysis of the many systems that impact an individual who is struggling with mental health.

A Quick Note on Thoughts and Prayers

Recently, after acts of mass violence in this country, a weird sort of internet debate has inevitably swirled around the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of offering "thoughts and prayers."

Obviously, a big part of this is just a reaction to the hypocrisy of "leaders" who take money from gun lobbyists and refuse to take any real action against gun violence. From these leaders, "thoughts and prayers" does indeed sound like an empty phrase, the useless clanging of a gong.

After the most recent shooting in Texas, this weird debate was even more pronounced because the shooting happened in a church while people were praying and worshipping.

I've already written a bit in a previous post about how I understand the role of prayer in response to violence -- how it's an act of intentional compassion and solidarity that leads to action just as action itself is a form prayer.

So let me just add to that by saying: by all mean, send thoughts and send prayers.

Send prayers by extending real compassion to the people who have been hurt and killed.

Pray for the wisdom and the insight to know how to respond responsibly.

And think. Put your mind to work. Think systems. Think about the multiple factors that impact a person to lead them to violence. And think carefully and prayerfully -- what the Christian tradition has referred to as "discernment" -- about how you, too, and the communities you inhabit, are impacted by and in turn can impact those systems.

Thoughts and prayers? Yes, by all means -- we will need both. Actions? Yes, those too.

Putting them all together?

That's thinking systems.

That's the kind of thing that might just lead us to properly diagnose this problem. And maybe, just maybe, find a cure.

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