On the night of the latest mass shooting, I made beef stew and cinnamon rolls with my children. After dinner, we gathered on the living room floor to play Haikubes, a poetry game where players compose haikus with prompts from rolled dice. We laughed uproariously at each other’s silly poetry.
After I put my children to bed, I turned on the news. That newscast could have been the same one I watched on April 20, 1999, or July 20, 2012, or December 14, 2012, or September 16, 2013, or May 23, 2014, or June 17, 2015. And these are only the most deadly of the numerous mass shootings that have played out on our screens since Columbine.
As the mother of a teenager who has bipolar disorder, a mother who once worried about my own son’s violent behavior, I see mass shootings differently. I see promises broken, a society that has failed to help our most vulnerable.
Nothing has changed since Newtown, since Columbine. This is the price of our silence. I see the price of our silence around mental illness, and worse, the price of our collective failure to act. In the inevitable connection of mental illness to these incomprehensible acts of violence, I also see stigma — the perpetuation of fear and ignorance that leads to ongoing and pervasive discrimination against families like mine.
As a nation, we only speak about mental illness within the context of these horrific national tragedies. And yet consider these facts:
- Mass shootings constitute a very small percentage of overall gun violence. Some stats put it at less than 1%.
- When treated, people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general public. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.
- The largest percentage of deaths by gun violence in America are suicides, at 60%.
There's currently a bipartisan bill in Congress, “The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” which would provide vastly expanded treatment options for people with serious mental illness. It would clarify confusing privacy laws and end arbitrary restrictions on hospital beds and days of treatment.
We would never tell someone with cancer that they could only spend 180 days in residential treatment — but that is exactly what we tell people with serious mental illness. People blame parents and say we should have gotten help for our children before it became too late. But what they don’t understand is that we can’t get help for our kids. In most cases, it simply does not exist.
Opponents of mental health reform speak about patients’ rights. As a mother of a teenager who has bipolar disorder — and whose treatment has restored him to a life of mainstream school and friends — I ask, what about the right to treatment?
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are largely diseases that affect the young. By failing to provide early interventions and timely treatments, we're condemning too many bright young people to a life in prison, or on the streets.
Timely treatment could have helped Chris Mercer, and all the notorious young men who preceded him in committing senseless violent acts. Mercer apparently blogged about people who are “all alone and unknown,” people like him. What could we have done to help him?
We have a duty to speak up. When we see someone suffering, we should help. If a friend or a loved one’s behavior suddenly changes, if he or she becomes hostile, suspicious, or pushes us away, we should push back and seek help. With early intervention and treatment, many people who have mental illness can live happy, productive lives.
In the face of sorrow, we must learn to embrace the stranger. We must choose hope.
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