When Tragedy Hits Close to Home: Turning Fear into Compassion

By February 21, 2013Blog

As a nation, lately we’ve become hyper vigilant when it comes to mental illness and violence. Almost everyone seems to have an opinion about a) the problem; b) the cause; c) the solution; and perhaps most importantly in the eyes of some, d) who is to blame. As someone who has been immersed in the world of mental illness for a dozen years, I have a pretty solid foundation for my opinions. But something happened today that gave me a deeper perspective.

I received a phone call this morning informing me that a colleague of mine has been impacted by an act of violence related to mental illness. The impact was personal, profound, tragic and irreparable. Once I got past the initial shock and disbelief and started gathering the still sketchy bits of information, my mind got stuck. I got stuck on the fact that what happened really has very little to do with mental illness. This has to do with people about whom I care. This is about a family; a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a brother, a community. It’s about life – hopes and fears, dreams, challenges, hurdles, barriers, break throughs, the unanticipated, the unexpected.  Yet the news clips and the photos seem to miss all of that, just ominously intent on portraying someone who should be feared, dehumanized, and stereotyped. The reports are punctuated by that all too familiar phrase ‘the family had concerns about the accused’s mental condition’.

Here’s why I’m stuck. All I can think of is: We’ve got this all backwards.
Violent acts occur every day in this country. In 2010 there were 16,259 homicides, 11,078 of which were committed with a gun. Studies show that approximately 10% of those homicides (1,626) were committed by someone with a severe mental illness. That leaves over 14,000 homicides committed by ‘sane’ people. Are these somehow less newsworthy? Or should any of these be newsworthy at all?

Deaths occur in this country every day. Homicides don’t even make the top 10. Heart disease, lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes . . . these are way up the list. People are dying right and left. And many are dying long before their time. The infant mortality rate in 2010 was 66% higher than for homicides. Should any of these killers soar to the top of our political agendas?

Now, let’s take a look at mental illness. Over 38,000 people in the US died by suicide in 2010, more than double the number of homicides. And statistics show that 90% of those who died by suicide had a diagnosable mental illness. To me, that’s alarming. Does suicide generally make the news (unless a celebrity is involved)? NO. It barely makes the obituary, generally swept under the carpet with the euphemism ‘passed away suddenly/unexpectedly’.

If little is said about the loss of life from suicide, there is the even less mention of the diminished participation in life that comes with mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports the impact of different illnesses in terms of ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ or DALY’s which measure the years lost to illness, disability or premature death. Guess which illness is out in front?  Neuropsychiatric Disorders (aka mental illness) makes of 28.47% of the total DALY’s, more than DOUBLE the impact of the #2 illness, Cardiovascular Disorders, at 13.94%.

For every life lost to death by suicide, death by homicide, death directly attributed to mental illness, there are hundreds more lives on hold or hanging on by a thread under the unbearable anguish and pain of depression, schizophrenia, anxiety , bipolar disorder, and so on. Imagine a child huddled in a ball under her covers, holding her head, crying and saying, ‘make it stop, Mommy, make it stop. I just can’t do this anymore, I just can’t take it’. That level of pain would earn a morphine drip in the ER if she had a broken arm to attribute the pain. But there isn’t any morphine for the relentless pain of depression, or the agonizing, crawl out of your skin discomfort of anxiety. It’s pretty isolating being that mom or that little girl. And it’s pretty isolating for my colleague in the midst of a terribly misunderstood tragedy.

So if the media, if our politicians, if we as a nation, are finally going to sit up and take notice of mental illness, let’s do it for the right reasons and with the right approach. I’m in NO WAY minimizing the impact of the mass tragedies in Newtown, Aurora, Tuscon and elsewhere. Nor am I minimizing the impact, the pain and loss of other illnesses and disorders.

There is no way to quantify or measure one loss against another other as more or less tragic. Every loss of life is tragic. Every loss of the full potential of a life is tragic. But let’s take an honest look at our motivations. We need to act out of compassion, not out of fear. Look back on our views towards cancer. In the 70’s the ‘C’ word was spoken in hushed voices, in fear. Irrational fear based on ignorance and misunderstanding. Thankfully now, 40 years later, pink ribbons have universal recognition, eliciting support and compassion. We MUST approach mental illness the same way we approach anything else that threatens the quality of human life. And maybe, just maybe, it won’t take us 40 years to get it right.

Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She has over 10 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci and her husband are parents of three daughters ages 16, 18 and 20.  The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at ages 9 and 10 respectively.

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