The Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy has ripped open the heart of this country and we are scrambling to stop the bleeding and the pain. For my part, I find myself thinking more than ever about mental wellbeing, because I know firsthand about mental challenges — the autistic kind and the mood disorder kind.
I am hurting for this country, and of course for the Newtown victims, but I’m also very very worried about us as a people. I’m thinking that the focus of our raging energy is going to be mostly around gun control — which I support — and also around whether or not Adam Lanza had an autism spectrum disorder. The latter question then will be all about how autism does not equal violence, etc.
I have little doubt that tighter gun control — perhaps mostly in terms of eliminating assault and semi-automatic weapons — will help decrease some violent crime. And I have little doubt that it was something other than autism/Asperger’s that led to Adam Lanza’s violence. But truly, I want our hearts and minds instead to turn to mental health, and what that is in this day and age. By and large, mental health is still weighed down by tremendous stigma. I’ve been so used to thinking and writing about autism as something people must understand, to eliminate prejudice and stigma. To foster community inclusion, friendship, fellowship. But now I am thinking about how that compassion and understanding must extend to mental health disorders as well. We need awareness, understanding, research, treatment, and coverage.
And we are a long way away from that. So many of us are scarcely able even to admit that we go to a therapist, much less about being on medication. Certain older generations don’t even consider psychotherapy as any kind of valid solution to emotional problems. And anti-depressants? It is often considered a weakness to take medication for depression or mood disorders or OCD, etc., rather than a physiological necessity.
And even if you do accept the fact that most people at one time or another need professional help with their emotions and psyches, and that some people need medication and professional help for the rest of their lives, how many people can afford that kind of treatment? Even in my so-called enlightened and progressive circles, therapy is not something to be talked about except in teary whispers or self-deprecating remarks.
So if we as a nation are so far away from treating mental illnesses and disorders, let alone even talking about or knowing about them, then how can we expect for disturbed and isolated and misinformed individuals to take care of themselves? There is no justification for the horrible things Adam Lanza did, none whatsoever, but if we are trying to understand and prevent another tragedy, shouldn’t we take a deep and honest look at how we as a people deal with mental problems? If we can’t even talk about mental illness without being ashamed, if we can’t seek out routine therapeutic help or afford the medications, how can we hope to improve and heal?