A viewpoint about the Tucson shooting and the stigma of mental illness.
Let me shoot you, I’m mentally ill
January 13, 2011
The Tucson shooter is giving mental illness a bad name. He joins the list of killers who are identified as mentally ill: the shooter at Virginia Tech, the kid gunmen at Columbine, the targeter who nicked President Reagan, and a whole host of others going all the way back to the Texas Tower marksman, and perhaps the anarchist pistolero who got Prince Ferdinand of Austria and set off World War I. Maybe even John Wilkes Booth would have been seen as a mental case, if he lived today? The media loves to point the finger of crazy at all who create mayhem in the public eye. I am tired of it. It’s too easy. Call them nuts and you don’t have to look closer at the root causes in American culture, the easiness of using a weapon against somebody you don’t like, and the polarization problems in American society. I think the really crazy people are all the gun totin’ respectable people who think they need a weapon to protect themselves. Arizona is nuts for allowing private handguns to be worn by people in public. What, are they living in a recreation of the Old West? Is Arizona the OK Corral at a suburban mall?
And the political discourse is bent, too. How can you deny that the Tucson shooter was influenced by the general atmosphere of violence created by the rhetoric and the images that portray Gabrielle Giffords as a target? Putting the crosshairs over her congressional district may be free speech, but it is the real crazy speech. We don’t call the Republicans who printed this excrement mad. I could call them more than just angry, I could call them mad, but they would deny it and call you mad if you called them that. Labels are undemanding and give an out. They allow the needed introspection to be shucked off. Once we labeled this individual as schizophrenic, the discussion seems to stop. The man is merely demented. He doesn’t represent a greater societal sickness that goes beyond the issues of mental health assistance, gun control, and harsh political rhetoric. We as a society need to dig deeper. There is a great malaise in our society that poisons the civilized environment represented by the uncivil conversation, computer games of death, destruction, and rape, television shows about unchecked lawlessness, the disorder on our streets, and the fear of different. This great malaise of American culture creates stigma. This stigma is easily seen against the mentally ill. Stigma is not facing our fears and the truth. .
The truth is that we live in a society that glorifies violence, and the mentally ill are no more likely to resort to violence than the sane majority. The truth is the mentally ill are castigated for their illness, mischaracterized as violent beyond the proportionate truth. They are constantly confronted by a society that would prefer to cast them aside as hopeless, rather than deal with the reality that mental illness is everywhere. One in five Americans will suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetime. Most of the 60 million Americans with mental illness will try to hide the fact. It’s too difficult to say “I’m nuts and I am proud.” It’s too difficult to say “You will not pigeonhole me into a special category; you will not prevent me from speaking out about the injustice of the moniker, or any other injustice in our society.” I am one who will.
I am nuts, but I will not be discounted. In my life I have been confronted with small-minded people who see me as a threat, as someone to be shunned. I have seen “normal people” cringe when I speak of my manic depression. I lost a job when I admitted I had the illness. If I had said I had cancer would I have been terminated? I think not. Once when I first realized I was bipolar, I was upfront and admitted I had a problem that I was dealing with. My reward, I was told “it would be better if I didn’t return to my position.” I thought of suing, but the firm was too small and cost of litigation would have been more than I could afford. So I let this architecture firm get away with discrimination. It was illegal, and I was livid, but I stuffed it and went on with my life. However, if I were to go out for a job interview, I would be wary and not admit to my condition because if I did, the chance of employment might be nil. Would I speak to the issue, if asked? No, I would lie. I may be nuts, but I am not a fool. Admission is death in circumstances where you are the supplicant.
Admission of mental illness is difficult in any situation. Most with mental illness self-stigmatize. I am friends with folks who try to hide their condition at all costs. They will not speak of it outside the confines of a like-minded group: a NAMI, a DBSA, or a group therapy session. Say mental illness outside the safe zones and they melt away. They know the price you pay to say “I’m crazy, but I am dealing with it.” In the safe zone they will loudly protest the portrayal of the mentally ill: Hollywood’s and television’s exploitation of the illness for dramatic effect. It’s always a murderous mental patient who massacres. Isn’t “Halloween,” the horror movie of 1978 based on an escaped mental patient, Michael Myers, who wreaks mayhem on the cozy town of Haddonfield, Illinois? Some critics have suggested this film encourages sadism and graphic violence. Where do you think the immature and alienated youth get their inspiration from? In some youth cultures, Goths (today they call themselves Emos) -- the ones dripping with death jewelry covered in black with streaks of magenta hair -- are the only ones taking pride in their mental dysfunction. Are they a model to be emulated? Probably not, but 99% of them don’t go postal.
I am lucky. I can speak out about the discrimination faced by the bipolar, the schizophrenic, the constantly depressed, and the many others facing some mental disability. I have become a public speaker on the issue. I proclaim in front of all who will hear me. I have the condition, and I am not a threat to anyone. I will not resort to guns to get my way. I will not target the people who scare me or who are scared of me. I don’t represent anything alien. I am one with everyone. All people have a little madness in them. The irrational, overly emotional, the will to self destruction -- a penchant for violence exists, however small, in all people. I think it is in the hardwiring of the brain and has been there since we climbed down the trees and began to be Homo sapiens. These aspects of ourselves are what make us human. Each person who holds a little madness should appreciate the gift. When the gift gets too burdensome, put it down and get some help until you can pick it up again, until you can appreciate all that you are. When you do that, all the madness that is called normal is merely something to ponder for its larger meanings. The Tucson murders and the striking down of a United States Representative should be looked at with a larger lens. There is something wrong with America when this kind of violence is so prevalent. It goes way beyond mental illness.