Sick or Bad?

If we as human beings were not so frightened of mental illness, if we were willing to talk about it and seek treatment for loved ones who seem afflicted with some sort of mental illness – and if the system supported such treatment, maybe we would have fewer tragedies, fewer massacres of innocent people.

I have long been concerned that there are many children, no matter their race or socio-economic status, who have been mentally ill all their lives, but never got treated.  I am especially concerned that many children may be the victims of an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, but who are treated merely as children with behavior problems rather than as children who are sick and who need medical care.

We are so frightened of mental illness. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to admit that more people than not might benefit from visits to a psychologist or therapist or psychiatrist . We don’t want to admit that perhaps we ourselves may need help. What I worry about is that mentally ill parents are trying to raise children, who may themselves be mentally ill or may develop an emotional problem because of the way they are raised …but nobody wants to talk about it.

Who goes into schools and shoots innocent children, or to a shopping mall or dark movie theater and rattles off bullets from a semi-automatic weapon?  Who drowns her own children? It is easy to say “a bad person” does that, but it feels more accurate to say that a sick person does that. “Bad” and “sick” are not the same.

I have said many times from the pulpit that if one is depressed, one ought not be afraid to admit it. Just as we seek (if we can afford it or have health insurance!) medical care if we are physically ill, we ought to run , not walk, to a doctor when we are emotionally distraught or feel like we are at the end of our ropes.

The experiences of life are not for the fainthearted. Even if one has reasonably good coping skills, the trials of life can strain the strongest of us. The biological creative process is miraculous, but not perfect. How else does one account for the babies born with cleft lips and palates, malformed or imperfectly formed organs, no brains, holes in their hearts, with autism?  We are well aware of the fact that there are congenital defects, which need immediate care and attention. Without medical attention, birth defects negatively impact a baby’s possibility for a quality life. Our denial of mental problems, and our refusal and/or reluctance to pursue vigorous treatment of these illnesses is no less harmful and dangerous than is putting a football player with a concussion back in the game, or breaking a bone and not getting it reset and immobilized so that it will heal correctly.

The signs of mental illness may not be there at birth, but certainly as a child grows, parents can see that something is wrong. And yet, many parents slip into denial. Parents who could afford to get their uncomfortable observations looked into often will not and do not…and parents who cannot afford a doctor’s visit, just in general, deny what they see and fall into disciplining, often harshly, a child who is actually mentally ill.

It would seem that the tendency toward denial does not end once a sick child grows up. The young man who shot the children in Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary School apparently had problems which people noticed, as did the young man who committed the deadly shootings at Virginia Tech University some years ago. Poet Nikki Giovanni, who had that young man in one of her classes, was reportedly so bothered by what she observed that she asked him not to return to her class.

Our tendency to deny the fact that mental illness lives amongst us – and indeed, within many of us – is going to cost more lives. Putting people in jail who act out of illness is not going to stop the shootings; putting people in jail is just as ineffective – and just as dangerous in the long run – as is denying that mental illness is a reality.

The health care system needs to find a way to improve not only its care but its outreach to people who need help. Employers ought to have something in writing that says “we will not label you ‘crazy’ if you apply for a job with us but are taking an anti-depressive drug.”  Pastors in churches ought to talk about it publicly. You can’t even taste the goodness of God if you are in mental anguish.

I was moved to write this because I looked at the image on television of the young man who shot the people in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado last year. From the first  time I saw that image, I thought he was mentally ill, but even when I heard what he had done, I thought he was mentally ill. The discussion was whether he should be put to death if he is convicted…and I shook my head. America is not getting it. This guy may very well not only be sick but has probably been sick for a long time.

Someone is going to ask what the difference is between sick and bad. I don’t know yet how to clearly argue that question, but it’s coming. All I know is that denying that mental illness is a major problem is a major mistake on the parts of our country, parents, and our health care system.

I have not used the names of the shooters in the tragedies that left 26 people dead in Newtown, Connecticut, or at Virginia Tech or in the mall in Colorado that left Congresswoman Gabby Giffords severely injured or in the shooting that happened in the movie theater in Aurora, or the shootings in Columbine. I have not even begun to address the tragedy that happens in urban areas, where kids are killing other kids by the hundreds.  Some of those kids may be “bad,” but I would bet a whole lot more of them are ill. I I have left the names of the shooters out on purpose…because they all represent mental illness, denied and ignored.

The consequences of us living with our heads in the sand are obvious.

A candid observation …