Although this post is a bit off topic for a Mormon/feminist blog, I feel that it is important enough to discuss that I am including it here. As most people are likely aware, on July 20th a 24-year-old man came through the exit door of a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire on the audience. Twelve people have been confirmed dead from the shooting, and 58 people were injured. Most of the news articles that I have seen covering the event have focused on issues of gun-control and security. While these are certainly important topics to discuss, I have been surprised that there has not been more discussion about improving mental health in our country. It is important to note that a discussion of mental health does not presuppose that we excuse the atrocious behavior of the shooter. Rather that by improving the identification and treatment of mental health in our country we would be reducing the overall risk of such tragedies occurring in the first place.
An additional piece of news that has surprised me was the statement made by President Obama in Fort Meyers, Florida after the event. As part of a his statement he said, “Such violence, such evil is senseless; it’s beyond reason.” While I appreciate his intent, I find this statement problematic primarily because it implies that there is no way we can understand why individuals act in a very violent way. As a psychologist, my response is that although it is very, very hard for us to understand these acts of extreme violence, I think that it is important that we do everything we can to understand why these events occur and what we can do to prevent them. This can be accomplished through research about the causes of mental illness as well as studies that look at the effectiveness of different treatments. Even though I recognize that Pres. Obama was responding to the tragedy with very short notice, I wish that he would have taken the opportunity to talk about the importance of improving overall mental health in our country. Once again, these kind of statements must be made carefully in order to avoid excusing the behavior or sympathizing too much with the perpetrator. However, I feel that it was a missed opportunity to reduce some of the stigma around general mental health issues and raise awareness about how the mental health system could be improved overall.
In the spirit of raising awareness, I wanted to address some common misconceptions about mental health issues.
1-We tend to lump people into strict categories of “normal” people and people with mental health problems. However, this type of thinking does not accurately represent the variation within the human population. When we look at any mental health issue, such as propensity toward depression, everyone fits somewhere along a wide spectrum of functioning. Thus, at one extreme are people who rarely struggle with depression while at the other extreme are people whose depression so debilitating it significantly hampers their ability to function in everyday life. However the important thing to note is that most people will be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and that their position in that spectrum can fluctuate throughout their life. Although there are specific diagnostic criteria for identifying someone with depression, mental health professionals recognize that cut-off points are somewhat arbitrary. Thus, drawing a cut-off point on the spectrum and stating that everyone to the left of the line “has” depression while everyone to the right of line doesn’t “have” depression may not be a useful way to think about mental illness.
2-Related to the first point is that the stigma around mental health illness can often prevent people from seeking professional help when they would benefit from it. If we think of the world in these strict categories (those who have mental health issues and those who do not), people are reluctant to do things that would put themselves in the “mental health issues” category. So they may feel that if they go to a therapist, take medication, etc. then they are placing themselves in a category that they don’t want to be in. However, many people don’t realize that mental health problems are fairly common. Most people are going to suffer from some form of depression, anxiety, or other mental health problem during their lifespan. We need to normalize mental health issues and help people realize that it is a common part of life that most people deal with. Almost everyone goes to the doctor and we see this as a normal part of being a responsible adult. We need to do the same for mental health.
3-Because events like the Aurora shooting get a lot of press, we often assume that people with mental health issues are commonly dangerous or violent. However, a vast majority of people with mental health issues are not dangerous or violent. Most people fall in the middle of the spectrum discussed earlier with very few people at the extremes of the spectrum. I do think that is important to seek to understand the behavior of people at the extremes. Why are these people so violent? What factors contributed to this behavior? I can’t state this too many times, but the purpose here is not to excuse the behavior, but take measures to reduce the likelihood of this behavior occurring in the future. When discussing this issue with a friend, he was firm in his belief that because the violence in Aurora was premeditated, it could not be a mental health issue. In his mind, people with mental illnesses are incapable of the level of planning that went into the violent act of the shooter. I am not sure where he got this idea from, but it was difficult to convince him that some people with mental health issues are capable of this level of preplanning. I firmly believe that knowledge is power and gaining better knowledge about mental health will contribute to a better understanding of how to prevent these violent acts. As I stated before, I disagree with Pres. Obama’s statement that “Such violence, such evil is senseless; it’s beyond reason.” We need to do everything we can to understand the reasons so we can reduce the violence.
What do you think? What are common stigmas or misconceptions about mental health problems? How can we reduce the stigma around mental health in ourselves and people around us?