Ignorance and Illness: Mental Health in the US

“Shots fired outside the US capital”, were the words I heard from a friend Thursday afternoon.  Just a few years ago those words would scare and surprise me — they might have even led to pandemonium in the nation’s capital, but not anymore.  On Thursday, as I read the words, I don’t believe my expression changed.  I was concerned and saddened, but I have also become jaded to these public announcements of violence (granted, in this case there was no shooter per se, but the coverage produced the same sentiment).  I probably could have started this article off in a nearly identical fashion any number of weeks over the past year: mass shootings with at least some seemingly random (or at least collateral) targets have become frighteningly commonplace.  If you too read that last sentence without thinking twice about it, read it again.  Really think about what it means, and then consider, what does that say about our society and our approach to mental illness and emotions?

I certainly do not claim to have the comprehensive answer to that question, but what I can confidently say is that in America we too often turn a blind eye to mental illnesses and frequently our own feelings.  In the incident this past week, it turns out that the instigator did not in fact even have a gun, and therefore, she did not shoot anyone, but nevertheless it shouldn’t surprise us that reporting since the event have uncovered that she was suffering from depression.  Mental illness is a difficult concept to encapsulate within one set of words. It varies greatly by individual, and even the same illness can have massively different results on different minds.  Without question it is only a minute portion of the mentally ill population that turns to murder or other means of violence as an expression of their issues.  I would argue that the actions taken as a means of dealing with a mental illness are equal to, or may even exceed, the variability in the array of illnesses themselves.

An estimated 26.2 percent of adults in the US suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness in a given year according to the NIMH.  Mood disorders, along with Depressive and Dysthymic Disorders combine to form the largest percentage of ailments in America.  Furthermore, 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or substance abuse disorder (NIMH).  This statistic may also be applied to suicide gunman, and bombers who just as often have mental illness.  After every public shooting the debate immediately becomes a battle between those for and against gun ownership.  I could go into the reasons average citizens don’t require automatic weapons, but the fact of the matter is we are looking for external factors to an internal problem.  A gun provides a means, but not a motivation, and in a world where policy change is hard to come by, removing a driving force behind the action can be much more impactful than demanding a change in means.  Alternatives to a gun will always exist, whether homemade bomb, or a type of chemical.  If mental illness is better managed, no other cause will readily take its place.

To reiterate though, mental health issues are far more varied than these sensational spurts of violence. I believe I am no different than most individuals in America in that I know firsthand, whether through family, friends, or oneself, the toll on life that mental illness takes.  Depression may lead a parent to feel empty and unable to meet their child’s emotional needs.  He may get frustrated with the country’s insistence that the illness is just “sadness”, – its normal to be sad when things go wrong, not when they go right – constantly being asked “what’s wrong” when there is seemingly no answer.  Or consider an individual with Social Phobia, who feels paralyzed in any social function, constantly feeling judged and embarrassed.  The same individual feeling tired of others thinking that the disorder is just a quirky/cute quality of a character on an oddball sitcom.  Perhaps PTSD may force your mind back to a battlefield or attack in the past, even while in the safety of your home.  Each of these conditions can be dealt with and managed if we accept them.  They often lead to substance abuse (yes, alcohol counts), emotional shutdowns, or private or public lash outs both violent and verbal.  The factor determining which path an individual will follow is how we as a society view these problems.

We have built a culture that thrives on the extremes. Like our polarized political views, the standard America approach to pain, emotional or physical, is a juxtaposition of unyielding complaining versus a deafening silent solitude.  As with politics, the proper solution is neither of these, but the novel concept of dealing directly with issues with an appropriate mixture of emotional discourse and solitary contemplation in an attempt to objectively analyze a problem and it entity it’s solution.  As a result of this tendency to be overly dramatic when voicing complaints, we associate emotional expression as over the top, when in reality it is often crucially important in facing our demons, for they must be identified before they are conquered. Our other option appears to be hiding our hellish flames and leave them to burn us internally in places we hardly know exist.

This political, cultural, and social structure makes it incredibly difficult for individuals experiencing these issues to face them.   With social stigmas relating mental illness to “nuthouses” and similar clichés, it is little wonder why so many Americans chose to hide the problems we face.  It is important that we culturally work to change these sentiments in order to help those in need feel comfortable reaching out.  I strongly believe the first step in changing our approach to mental illness is through removing negative pre-conceived notions, and admitting that brain ailments truly do exist.  If we can accomplish this, it makes it infinitely easier for someone suffering to admit it.

Now all of this said, the concerns voiced about over-diagnosis are legitimate in some cases.  Constant advertisement asking if you suffer from this or that sign of depression definitely encourage people to self-diagnose.  Interestingly, this increase in media coverage does not seem to have translated into a significant drop in stigma.  It is still much more difficult to tell a friend you are dealing with substance abuse than a broken leg.  This helps perpetuate the problem, as most mental illnesses require the help of others to fix.  Culturally we like to act as though we are fully self sufficient, but we clearly are not.  We depend on others to supply our food, water, housing, and to help with physical ailments – mental ones are no different.

Nobody is perfect, we know and accept that, but just as categorically true is the fact that we can all continuously better ourselves, whether suffering from illness or not.  Often times this requires a deep — and potentially painful — delve into one’s psyche.  More often than not, a professional therapist (or similar professional) will be crucial in helping you along this path.  As a culture we need to work towards accepting this, and encouraging others to work through problems rather than hide them.  It takes more courage to get help and overcome social stigma than it does to hide the illness with lash outs, a bottle, or self-misery.  What we view as stoic toughness may in reality just be fear – being too afraid to confront the issues that most disturb us.  It is certainly possible regardless of how helpless you may feel — and the results can be life changing (if not saving) for you and your close friends/family.

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One response to “Ignorance and Illness: Mental Health in the US

  1. SKB

    Impressive essay.

    I found the following statement quite insightful

    “After every public shooting the debate immediately becomes a battle between those for and against gun ownership. I could go into the reasons average citizens don’t require automatic weapons, but the fact of the matter is we are looking for external factors to an internal problem. After every public shooting the debate immediately becomes a battle between those for and against gun ownership. I could go into the reasons average citizens don’t require automatic weapons, but the fact of the matter is we are looking for external factors to an internal problem.”

    I agree Americans do not focus enough on the mental illness aspect as it relates to violent crimes. Gun control is an issue and should be publicly discussed, mental illness should be discussed on equal footing. To tackle mental illness we as a nation must provide the necessary resources (money) for local communities to aid and respond to people afflicted with mental illness. The community must support school psychologists and other mental health professionals. Employing enough of these professionals is part of the problem; we don’t allocate enough resources to hire enough mental health professionals, or provide institutional housing for those who need it. An intellectual debate at the national level on how to resolve the mental illness issue is needed. Perhaps the gun lobby would support and help fund such an initiative.

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