We don’t know enough about the mind of the alleged Colorado shooter, James Holmes, to determine if he has a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or if he was driven by some narcissistic, anti-social desire to hurt others and become infamous.
But as the father of an adult son with bipolar disorder, who has been arrested and who once fixated on a movie during a psychotic break, I’ve watched the public reaction to the horrific shootings in Aurora — and earlier ones in Tuscon and on the Virginia Tech University campus – with trepidation. As a nation, we are stumped by mental illnesses.
* These awful tragedies should turn attention on our nation’s woefully inadequate mental health care system. Instead, the spotlight always focuses on gun control. A possible reason is because people are afraid of being sympathetic or being viewed as excusing the acts of the gunman if they discuss mental illness. But how can we prevent future shootings if we don’t question why Seung-Hui Cho fell through the cracks in Virginia after he was declared “a danger to himself and others” or why Jared Lee Loughner’s schizophrenia went untreated? We ignore the elephant in the room – our nation’s failed mental health care system — at our own peril.
*The gunman’s parents will be blamed by the public even though our current civil rights laws make it extremely difficult for family members to force anyone to see a doctor or seek medical treatment if they have a mental disorder and act oddly. By law, we protect the right of an individual to be “crazy.” Yet, we become outraged when a Cho or Loughner kill and maim.
*Although science can’t tell us the causes of most mental disorders, severe ones such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are thought to have biological and genetic underpinnings and are not the fault of those who get sick. “In a given year approximately one quarter of American adults are diagnosable for one or more mental disorders,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Despite the fact that mental illness may strike anyone, having a mental disorder is still seen as a personal character flaw and rarely sways public opinion or influences sentencing. Polls consistently show the public believes the insanity offense should be eliminated because it is a dodge used by murderers to avoid prison. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s rants were driven by paranoid schizophrenia. Yet, he is serving life without parole in a federal prison — not in a mental hospital receiving treatment — for three murders. We understandably want to hold killers responsible for their actions even when they are mentally unhinged. This has lead to hair-splitting interpretations in our legal system. If the accused understands that murdering another human being is wrong, he can be sentenced to death even if his own mind was telling him at the time of the murder that the policeman who stopped him was an alien intent on harming him.
*Because these mass shooting appear to be unpredictable, we feel helpless to prevent them. We shouldn’t. The shootings in Tucson and at Virginia Tech could and should have been prevented. Family members and university professors were alarmed by the antics of Jared Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho but were stymied either by the “dangerous to self or others” legal standard for intervention or by a lack of responsive community mental health care. Future shootings can be stopped with improved laws and services.
*The Aurora murders not only destroyed and injured innocent movie-goers, causing great pain and suffering, they also further stigmatized persons with mental disorders. A poster already being circulated on the Internet belittles mental illnesses, dismissing them as a flimsy excuse for Holmes’ actions. It is important to remember that persons with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than to harm others and that Loughner, Cho, and possibly Holmes, are not representative.
Mike Wallace, Terry Bradshaw, Jane Pauley, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Catherine Zeta Jones, Carrie Fisher, Margot Kidder, Patty Duke, Kay Redfield Jamison and millions of other ordinary Americans, including my son, are the real face of mental illnesses. None of them has killed anyone and they should not be stigmatized and their illnesses should not be trivialized because of the violence of a few.
Nor should anyone assume that our hearts are not breaking because of these senseless murders.