Mental illness is neither uncommon nor separate from physical illness. People with conditions like schizophrenia are not necessarily acting much different from the rest of us, especially if they are getting effective treatment. Whether we know it or not, all of us know people who are dealing with serious mental health challenges.
People who are truly disengaged from reality may do things that are self-injurious and have no gain or rationale that others can understand.
In my own urban neighborhood there are people who are driven to wander the streets in their own purgatory. A family member is lost to us, out of contact. Mental illness causes immense suffering and it’s a shame that it’s used as a slur or a joke. It’s a disgrace that so many influential voices are using a cowardly attack on the mentally ill to avoid admitting that we all have a social disease. Worse, they prefer to deny and spread it around rather than come clean and seek a cure.
Different cultures have different kinds of crazy. During the European witchcraft hysteria of the 1400’s a book was published that warned men about penis-stealing witches- a belief that got a lot of women killed. Insane by our standards, but not in that society. Is The Hammer of Witches really so different from The Turner Diaries, a book that inspired racist mass-murderer Timothy McVeigh?
Does mental illness explain a pattern of crime where the perpetrators dress up, shout slogans and for the most part target the same kinds of people repeatedly? Does it explain why so many violent men seem to believe they are part of a community of right-thinking patriots? Does it excuse our leaders for failing to demand that anyone who wants to own a lethal weapon owes the rest of us some accountability?
Mental illness may explain the derelict masturbating in public on a park bench, but it does not explain the serial rapist. The kind of premeditated violence driven by hateful ideas is not simply sick individuals and will not be solved by locking them up after the damage is done. There will only be more to replace them.
What is needed is a clear assessment of the cultural delusions that enable bigotry to hide in plain sight. As someone described the latest mass killer:
“I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” he said. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”
South Carolina still flies the Confederate flag at its Statehouse. The governor expresses her regrets with care not to offend her supporters invested in denial about racism and guns.
America is gun-crazy. Every child grows up watching hundreds of dramas where guns bring power and respect, the bad guys are eventually out-shot and other ways to resolve conflict are ignored or disparaged. They don’t see the damage, the wounds that don’t heal, the bereavement that is never outlived. Nurses see that but it’s not entertaining and there’s no happy ending.
Mass shootings boost gun sales. Fear is good for the industry.
A gun carries the magic power of every movie cowboy and TV hero. Having one demands a high level of responsibility and good judgment, or else the gun owner is no longer the ‘good man’ but a menace. In spite of this, any attempt to ‘well regulate’ our self-appointed militia is met with outrage. In the wake of many decades of political assassinations it’s an act of physical courage to stand up to the most extreme of the gun lobby.
Only 21 years old, and given one moment to turn away from atrocity-
Roof, 21, has told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” sources told NBC News.
And yet he decided he had to “go through with his mission.”
Why? Who gave him his mission? Who armed him? He had his problems but he was not some lost soul wandering aimlessly and hallucinating. He had a script and he was armed. The adults in his life enabled him to get a lethal weapon and no one thought his indoctrination into racism was a problem. When America is racist and gun crazy, how will we even know who is a threat? The problem is in plain sight but requires letting go of delusion.
Easier to blame mental illness and the disempowered people who struggle with it.
Image from Good Magazine.