By David Asia
Mental illness hits pretty close to home for me, for personal reasons and because I spent a good part of my professional life learning from, and with, people with mental illnesses and their families. I’ve sat with them as they’ve struggled with mental health agencies to find the right kind of care. I’ve felt some of their desperation as the state’s involuntary treatment system failed to see the same risk of harm they saw in their child. And I have to admit there were times when I was not as helpful as I should have been.
With more mass shootings, mental illnesses are in the news again. In spite of the attention they receive after events like these, do the people talking about them know whom they’re talking about?
Mental illnesses can be acute, that is, they can come and go never to reoccur with the same debilitating intensity, or they can be chronic, illnesses that must be managed over the course of a lifetime like diabetes (anyone who has to “manage” diabetes knows how easy this is to say but how difficult to do). We can diagnose (and over diagnose) a few of them in childhood, but, generally, most are precipitated by some combination of events in late adolescence or early adulthood. For some, we suspect genetic predispositions based on family history, and, as with most other serious health problems, there are likely epigenetic contributors — exposure to trauma or other adverse experiences, especially in early childhood — which predispose us to a mental illness later in life.
Thought and mood disorders are central to mental illness. These alter the way we organize the world in our heads, the sense we make of things. We hear harmful voices, see things that aren’t there, and may experience paranoia, delusions or other symptoms. We feel hope, despair, rage. Then we do stuff.
But is this just about individuals?
If one person believed that killing children attending a school supported by those whom he thought were a danger to his way of life was justified, even required, by his faith, wouldn’t we think that he had a tragic thought disorder and was mentally ill? What if an entire community or culture held and acted on that same belief? Would we understand that culture or community to be mentally ill? Or can a mental illness become so normalized within a population that it completely disappears?
Were the good people who burned witches in Salem, Massachusetts, mentally ill? What about the people who brought their families to witness the lynchings of innocent African Americans?
Were we mentally ill for listening to voices telling us that we had to kill 3 million Vietnamese in order to stop communism in Southeast Asia? Was, and is, the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (the rationale for massive nuclear arsenals during the Cold War) the result of a thought disorder?
Were the Hutus mentally ill when they slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 100 days in 1994? Were we when we undertook the enslavement of an estimated 19 million Africans? Do we dismiss events like these as primitive episodes — other people, other times, other places — historical anecdotes with nothing to teach us? Or are these acts evidence of a thought disorder on a mass scale, reoccurring throughout history, even to this day — a chronic mental illness endemic to our species? And have thoughts like these become so widespread they cease to be considered disordered?
Is Google’s search engine narrowing our exposure to information and feeding the very disorders in thinking observed in some mental illness? After all, we all hear voices.
Are our neighbors mentally ill for believing they need to arm themselves with assault weapons for the time when George Soros leads UN Peacekeepers up the road to take away their guns? Am I and my Facebook friends mentally ill for not believing that George is on his way?
Are we mentally ill for thinking that the best way to save our children and our schools is to give teachers guns? Is this version of mutually assured destruction the real meaning of today’s Second Amendment?
We like to think we know how a mentally ill individual might commit an act of violence. What if the above examples demonstrate how mental illness might drive a population to even greater acts of violence?
And if there is any truth here, how would any of us even know, let alone stop ourselves?
David Asia, PhD, lives in Twisp.