In the wake of the Colorado shooting the subject of mental illness has seeped into the news once again, so naturally I decided to air an opinion or two on the subject. (There’s no doubt in my mind that the kid that shot all of those people is mentally ill; most of the lone wolf killers have one form of mental illness or another, even if they are “just” sociopaths. But I want to head off any attempts that may be coming down the pike to categorize all or most mentally ill people as psychotic killers just waiting for an opportunity to open fire.)
According to National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) roughly 26% of adult Americans suffer from one kind of mental illness or another (there are many, and NIMH’s website gives a good overview of what they are and what the symptoms are), and one-quarter of those, or 6% of the general population of adults, deal with mental conditions that can cause serious disruptions of their daily lives. That translates into approximately 57 million Americans with some form of mental illness and 10 to 12 million whose mental illness disrupts what most people consider normal lives and relegates them to the shadowy worlds of institutions and homelessness. That’s a lot of people affected, and these are just the cases that they know about.
There are many causes for mental illness and the majority of them have nothing to do with drugs, although most people with dependency problems have some kind of mental illness that is most likely undiagnosed. (One last point on the subject of substance abuse and mental illness is that while most addicts have undiagnosed mental illnesses and are self-medicating whether they know it or not, substance abuse has been proven to make an existing mental illness worse. I just wanted to be clear on that!) The two leading factors that cause mental illness are genetics and environment. When it comes to genetics, a great many mental illnesses, especially the most serious ones, are inherited from one or both parents; basically, the parental genes combine to cause chemical imbalances in the brain or just plain “faulty wiring” as I call it. With environment, mental illnesses can stem from growing up in abusive homes (probably the most famous case being that of Sybil and her multiple personalities), or from an excess of stress over an extended period of time as I addressed in my post on ethnic violence a couple of weeks back. A third theory, which is basically mine as I don’t hear much about it from anywhere else, is that the high percentages of mental illness in this country are at least partly caused by the excess of electromagnetic fields which surround us every moment of our lives; even excluding those poor folks who happen to live underneath high tension power lines, just the radiant energy from everything from radio signals to GPS to WiFi to cell towers is a source of EM energy that the human brain was never intended to be submersed in. And no, I have no empirical data to back this up, but it does make sense, which is why this theory can be filed under “Dave’s Theories on Everything”!
So we have a huge problem, but how many answers do we have? Not many that are worth the time and money spent on them. The current mental health system in the United States is overburdened, so most facilities are forced to operate under the “let’s get them back out the door as quickly as we can” method. Medications can help alleviate symptoms, and there are always new and improved medicines coming out, but there are nearly always side effects that are almost as bad as the illness they are treating, and treating a patient with just medications, at least for that 6% with serious problems, is more of a band-aid solution as there is little counseling available to help them deal with their core issues or even just help them cope with day-to-day living. Part of the problem is that most insurances, even the government programs like Medicaid and Medicare, provide very little in the way of psychiatric treatment. Those of us who are veterans probably get the best care as there are some very dedicated psychiatrists working in the VA system. But I want it to be known that there are some very dedicated people out there in the mental health profession who work very hard to help people mired in an overburdened mental health system. I have a good friend who works at a state hospital under difficult conditions who gives it her all every day, and I wish that there were a lot more out there like her.
I guess that my main point is that no one wakes up one morning and decides, “Hey, I think I’ll become schizophrenic today!” No one chooses to be Bi-polar or schizoaffective or to have multiple personalities. People with mental illnesses have an illness. They have a disease just like people who have cancer or Hepatitus-C or flesh-eating bacteria. Mental illnesses are diseases that affect the most sensitive of organs, the human brain. While their behavior may be hard to understand or even bizarre at times, it is the disease that is causing them to do that. Am I being too soft on mentally ill people? Some of you might think so, but I don’t. If someone like that kid in Colorado goes out and commits a crime because they are mentally ill there still have to be consequences, but there also has to be some effort at treating their illness. Don’t just stuff them into some hellhole like Bedlam and forget about them. Put them in prison (which most prisons are staffed to provide at least some mental health care) or an institution for the criminally insane if their crime justifies that. But whatever you do, don’t put all mentally ill people in the same category as that kid from Colorado. It is not a crime to be mentally ill, nor should it ever be.
So the next time you run across someone who clearly suffers from a mental illness, don’t make fun of them or think that they are just slackers. The mentally ill live each and every day in their own private hell and don’t need anyone’s help at feeling worthless and broken. The mentally ill are human beings who need help, who need friends and need love and understanding, not scorn and derision.
Besides, for all you know, someday you could be one of them.