The place to start may well be the explosion of random violence we seem to see across the news all too often
- May 2014 – Isla Vista, California – Elliot Rodgers killed six and wounded 13 before doing himself in
- April 2014 – Ft. Hood – Ivan Antonio Lopez killed three (including self) and wounded 10
- September 2013 – Washington Navy Yard – Aaron Alexis killed 12 and is killed
- December 20, 2012 – Sandy Hook Elementary, Newton, Connecticut – Adam Lanza killed 28, including his mother, committed suicide
- July 20, 2012 – Aurora, Colorado, Movie Theater – James Holmes kills 12, wounds 58, taken into custody
- October 20, 2011 – Salon Meritage, Seal Beach, California – Scott Dekraai killed eight, including ex-wife, arrested at scene
- August 20, 2010 – Manchester, Connecticut – Omar Thornton kills eight co-workers before turning gun on himself
- January 20, 2010 – Appomattox, Virginia – Christopher Speight kills eight, surrenders to police next day
- November 20, 2009 – Ft. Hood, Texas – Major Nadal Malik, psychiatrist, kills 13, wounds 32, convicted, sentenced to death
These nine mass shootings were responsible for 219 deaths and over 123 wounded. In the previous 40 years, there were 14 other mass shootings that accounted for 188 deaths. The pace and copycat aspects have increased dramatically.
The Columbine incident in April 1999 appears to have set a template for much of what followed.
All of this is just the most visible tip of the mental health iceberg. The clamor after each of these horrific events is the call for more gun control. Certainly that will help, but the main ingredient in all these senseless episodes is the lack of mental health detection and treatment.
Writing in the N.Y. Times early this year, Nicholas Kristoff presented a good overview of the mental illness problem we are facing. “Mental health,” he suggests, “is a systematically-neglected issue.”
One quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, including, depression, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Such disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, the NIH says—a parent with depression; a lover who is bipolar; a child with an eating disorder; a brother who returned from war with PTSD; a sister who is suicidal.
All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues, but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out. These mental health issues pose a greater risk to our well-being than, say, the Afghan Taliban or Al Qaeda terrorists, yet in polite society there is still something of a code of silence around these topics.
We in the news business have devoted vast coverage to political battles over health care, deservedly, but we don’t delve enough into underlying mental health issues that are crucial to national well-being.
Indeed, when the news media do cover mental health, we do so mostly in extreme situations such as a mass shooting. That leads the public to think of mental disorders as dangerous, stigmatizing those who are mentally ill and making it harder for them to find friends or get family support.
In fact, as stated in an Institute of Medicine report, the danger is “greatly exaggerated” in the public mind. The report concluded: “Although findings of many studies suggest a link between mental illness and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small.”
Put simply, the great majority of people who are mentally ill are not violent and do not constitute a threat—except, sometimes, to themselves. Every year, 38,000 Americans commit suicide, and 90 percent of them are said to suffer from mental illness.
One study found that anorexia is by far the most deadly psychiatric disorder, partly because of a greatly elevated suicide risk.
Mental illness is also linked to narcotics, alcoholism, homelessness, parenting problems and cycles of poverty. One study found that 55 percent of American infants in poverty are raised by mothers with symptoms of depression, which impairs child rearing.
So if we want to tackle a broad range of social pathologies and inequities, we, as a society, have to break taboos about mental health. There has been progress, and news organizations can help accelerate it; but, too often our coverage just aggravates the stigma and thereby encourages more silence.
The truth is that mental illness is not hopeless, and people recover all the time. Consider John Nash, the Princeton University mathematics genius who after a brilliant early career tumbled into delusions and involuntary hospitalization, captured by the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind,” spent decades as an obscure, mumbling presence on the Princeton campus before regaining his mental health and winning the Nobel Prize for economics.
“Although treatments are available, we often don’t provide care, so the mentally ill disproportionately end up in prison or on the streets.
“Children in particular don’t get treated nearly often enough. The American Journal of Psychiatry reports that of the children ages six to 17 who need mental health services, 80 percent don’t get help. Racial and ethnic minorities are even more underserved.
“So mental health gets my vote as a major neglected issue meriting more attention. It’s not sexy, and it doesn’t involve Democrats and Republicans screaming at each other, but it is a source of incalculable suffering that can be remedied.”
This is the first of a series of blogs we’ll do in the coming months to try to unravel the complexity of the mental health problem—the elephant in the closet.
Stay tuned ‘til next month. We’ll try to shed some light on various aspects of this problem.
P.S. My appreciation goes to two professionals who are helping guide me through these complex waters:
Philip Alcabes, Ph.D. (nephew) is an Epidemiology Professor in the Department of Allied Health at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. He studies and writes on the history, health, ethics and policy of public health.
Susan Bacon (neighbor) has master degrees in human development, counseling, psychology, and marriage and family counseling. She is currently teaching at Antioch and Pepperdine Universities.