After the Newtown killings, authorities tried to understand how mental illness factored into shooter Adam Lanza’s actions. No sane person would slaughter 20 babies, six teachers, his mother and himself, right? He must have been mentally ill.
The same questions have been asked about the Boston Marathon bombers, and the killers at Columbine and Virginia Tech and the Colorado movie theater. Who murders innocent people? Surely such actions are fueled by mental instability.
And while I’m on the topic, televisions shows like CSI, Law & Order, and Criminal Minds often feature villains who are mentally ill. After a while, it begins to look as if all of the mentally ill harbor violent tendencies.
You’ll be relieved to know that this is not the case. In fact, I have a mental illness and I’m quite peaceable. The most violent thing I’ve done recently is to whip the mashed potatoes. I’ve never built a bomb, never fired a gun, never tried to injure anyone – unless you count my kid sister when she was 9, but she deserved it. My days are spent writing, speaking, burping babies and arguing with my flowers to get them to grow.
I developed bipolar disorder in my early 40s. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness characterized by severe mood fluctuations, believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. I’m fortunate to have access to excellent medical care so, with hard work and lots of family support, my illness is being managed. I liken it to diabetes – I still have the disease but it is reasonably well under control. And like diabetes, mental illness is not a moral weakness. Neither is it my fault. It certainly doesn’t make me violent.
As with diabetes, it is essential that mental illness be treated. Left untreated, such illnesses can have dire consequences. Most people will not become violent, but some tragic cases have destroyed lives.
So why don’t all the mentally ill get treatment? There are many reasons, but I think a principal reason is lack of health insurance, or else insurance that inadequately covers mental illness. Treatment is expensive – far too expensive for most people to pay out of pocket.
Another issue is medication side effects. Many people experience side effects that are so noxious that they choose instead to live with untreated illness. This may seem foolhardy, but if you’d gained 100 pounds, or developed nightmares, or felt itchy all over, or could no longer sleep, you might seriously weigh the pros and cons of taking drugs.
In addition, the unfortunate truth is that some conditions are very difficult to manage. Not every medical issue has a well-defined answer. Schizophrenia is an example of an illness that can be terribly difficult to stabilize, even with the best medical care.
Are some mentally ill people violent? Yup. Fortunately, most are not. Some perfectly sane people are violent, but most are not. I have no answers to global problems. I just know that, along with the homeless, the mentally ill are today’s lepers. They – we – are the people avoided by others, judged by others, feared by others.
It’s too bad, because most of us are just regular Joe Schmoes who enjoy pepperoni pizza, laugh at our kids’ bad jokes and try to care for our aging mothers. Just like everyone else.
So, the next time you encounter someone battling mental illness, extend the hand of compassion. Even simple gestures are meaningful. I will never forget the generosity and kindnesses of people who delivered meals and reached out to me during a time of terrible darkness.
One day at the worst of my pain, I bumped into an acquaintance at the grocery store. When she casually asked about my life, I blurted out my confusing struggle with this thing called bipolar disorder. A few hours later, she knocked at the door with a plate of freshly made whoopie pies for my teenagers. As far as I know, whoopie pies are not clinically proven to help mental illness, but it was her way of saying that she cared.
That day, I did not feel alone. I was a little less afraid, and there was one more person to lean on when I lost my way.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.