It’s Time to Wake Up and Stop the Violence

Oryx Cohen

February 4, 2013

Usually when the acts of violence that are all too common in the United States occur I choose to try not to think about it, to focus on the positives, to move on quickly. I suppose I am not too different in that respect from many of my fellow Americans. Maybe it’s because I am a parent of young children that the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has finally woken me up. The violence has to end. For our sake, for our children’s sake, for humanity’s sake. We cannot allow such horrific violence to continue.

Who is to Blame?

I say “we” because we are all responsible. It seems that every time a terrible act like the one at Sandy Hook occurs, the blame game begins. We blame the individual for having a “mental illness,” we blame guns, we blame parents, we blame politicians, we blame the media. Blame, blame, blame. And then we get defensive. I am guilty as charged: I don’t want my peer group in the “mental health” world blamed as much as parents don’t want their peer group blamed, etc., etc. The truth is, we are all to blame. Every single person that makes up this country is to blame for allowing these events to keep happening.

Most people are asking serious questions about guns, and I think rightfully so. A few people are asking serious questions about the use of psychiatric drugs, and I think rightfully so. These are big political issues and I think the average person is left feeling a bit hopeless that they can do anything to make broad social changes happen.

However, just as we are all to blame, we are all responsible for creating healthier communities so these types of tragedies do not occur. We all have more power than we realize.

I believe there are three simple (although possibly revolutionary) actions we can all take to realize our power and to stop the violence.

1. Stop Labeling People

Not many people at all are talking about the effect that labeling or diagnosing others has on the rest of the society. I believe this is where the conversation should start. Just because we live in a culture that has hundreds of different ways of categorizing people as abnormal – bipolar, oppositional defiant, autistic, etc., – does not mean that we as individuals have to accept it or use that language to describe other people.

Here is what often happens when someone like Adam Lanza is labeled:

A child behaves differently than other children and this is upsetting to the adults around the child. The child receives a label that “explains” why he or she is different. Instead of reducing stigma, the label actually increases stigma. (The definition of stigma is a “mark” and the label is a way of marking someone as different.) People treat the child as different, stay away from the child, increasing isolation and the feeling of difference. Often times the child is the victim of bullying, teasing, and being socially ostracized.

In rare circumstances, these children, feeling that they are totally separated from the rest of their human family and with nobody to connect with about their strong feelings, do terrible things.

How about we approach every person as fully human? To me, these labels are in some ways a more socially and scientifically accepted form of name-calling, which is a form of psychological violence. If we can make a conscious choice to not use these labels in our own lives, we can go a long way to stopping the violence.

2. Stop Bullying

It’s not surprising that many kids who are victims of bullying end up being in so much pain that they either hurt themselves or seek “revenge.” We each have our own responsibility to recognize when bullying is happening and to take action.

Recent events have made me realize that I need to have more conversations with my own children about what happens at their preschool. I’m trying my best to be aware if there is a child (my own or another child) who is being bullied, teased, and/or ostracized, and to have a conversation about it with my children. As parents we would like to instill an understanding that it is unacceptable to be mean to another human being, regardless of difference.

It is all our responsibilities to do something – talk to the teachers, the administration, have conversations with the children involved – if we discover that bullying is occurring.

3. Start Reaching Out to Kids Who are Different

If we open our eyes and hearts, we can see clearly our young people who are different and/or extremely isolated and/or extremely troubled. We know who these kids are in our communities. We need to start reaching out to these kids not by saying there is something wrong with them and they need a diagnosis and they need treatment, but reaching out in away that embraces their humanity and welcomes them back in to our human family.

There are kids in my children’s school who are different and perceived that way by the other children. I’m sure this occurs at almost every school in the United States. We do our best to remind our kids that it is extremely important for them to be nice to everyone and include them in their play, to go out of their way to talk to those kids who don’t have very many friends.

Of course, kids like anybody else are going to develop their own friendships and “click” better with some of their peers and not with others. However, we can all probably do a better job of recognizing the many opportunities to include everyone. For example, our daughter had a large 4th-year birthday party and we decided to invite everyone in her class.

After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I’m trying to be more conscious of ways that I, personally, and my community can do a better job at reaching out to those (children or adults) who seem isolated and struggling. Recently I was playing basketball at an open gym and there were two young adults there who definitely fit the description. I was heartened to see that the rest of the guys there accepted them in to their group.

One of the young men was particularly talkative and friendly, in a way that some might find annoying. Some people might call him slow and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was given some sort of diagnosis. The guys didn’t seem to care. Instead of turning their noses in the air or putting him down in subtle or not so subtle ways, they engaged with him as an equal, asked him questions, and in the end he was just another guy getting a workout.

The other young man was much more quiet and introverted. His eyes darted back and forth and he seemed very self-conscious. You could tell it was a big deal for him to be there. I was uplifted at the way the guys treated him. They gave him compliments: “Nice shot!” “Great hustle out there.” And of course, high fives can go a long way.

In my work with the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community, it was an every day occurrence that people in our community had strong suicidal feelings, heard distressing voices, and/or were going through other extreme states. However, because we had such a strong sense of community with real friendship, access to peer support groups such as Alternatives to Suicide and Hearing Voices, and people reaching out to those they hadn’t heard from in awhile, the amount of violence in our community was impressively low.

As individuals, as a community, we need to give much more outreach and support to the people who are currently being labeled, marginalized, and forced to the fringes of society. We also need to do a better job of reaching out to our communities in general. We need to talk to our neighbors, our teachers, and other members of our community to actually know what is going on in our social networks. The more connected we are with friends and neighbors, the more we can be aware of those who may need additional support. Hopefully we can all take a few more peeks up from our smartphones and busy lives to make the necessary effort at direct human-to-human connection that is necessary to rebuild our broken communities.

Of course, these same strategies apply not only to young adults, but to older adults as well. We don’t need to be intrusive about it and we need to respect those who truly like to spend a lot of time alone, but I feel it is our responsibility to at least reach out.

Who knows? You might save a life.

Oryx Cohen

Healing Voices: Oryx is a leader in the international consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement.  Currently he is the Director of the National Empowerment Center’s Technical Assistance Center. Oryx is co-founder, with Will Hall, of The Freedom Center, an empowerment and advocacy group.

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28 thoughts on “It’s Time to Wake Up and Stop the Violence

  1. I couldnt agree with you more. The media only increase the fear with people like Adam Lanza even though it is only rare occasions. People are afraid of what is different. This is the major problem with mainstream schools. We teach our kids to conform rather than to be themselves, different, unique and to express themselves creatively. My own opinion is that some of the most gifted, talented and creative people alive have likely been labelled as mentally ill. Rather than nurture their gifts, we have done them a major disservice. It is time for change!

  2. Thanks Oryx. This was refreshing to read!

    One of the more difficult paradoxes you touch on is the way we both have to stop noticing “difference” in a way that isolates people with labels and destructive “treatments” but get better at recognizing difference in a way that allows us to reach out a little bit extra to people who need it, to be sure they are included and connected with.

  3. Oryx,

    Thanks for this timely and well-written essay. I agree with your three points, 100%, especially regarding the dramatic negative impact of labeling kids and adults as a means of isolating ourselves from discomfort.

    The only thing I’d add in the area of bullying is that one reason kids bully other kids is that adults bully kids all the time, especially in school. If we want kids to treat each other with respect, adults have to start holding themselves to the same standards they want to see from kids. They need to listen when kids have complaints or concerns, notice when their behavior is hurtful and apologize, and be willing to negotiate and mediate as needed to resolve issues.

    The labeling of kids is just one manifestation of adults taking advantage of their privilege and power and dumping their emotional issues on those least able to defend themselves. As you rightly say, it’s a very sophisticated form of name-calling, and we need to stop doing it!

    — Steve

  4. This is a good article, but I think more should be said.

    I know that the National Empowerment Center, where you are an official, has said it supports President Obama’s call for a national database of everyone found to be mentally ill. This database is supposed to be used to keep mentally ill people from buying guns.

    But everyone knows people like that who want to kill people will find a way to get guns.

    I am mentally ill, but I can stay out of the hospital most of the time if I take my meds faithfully. I would never hurt anyone. But I am mixed in with these people.

    I think everyone who is on that database should be evaluated by psychiatric experts who can determine which of them is likely to kill people. Then those people should be euthanized, for their own good and society’s good.

    I know this sounds extreme, but I don’t think so. Once we have eliminated the people who might do these horrible things, people like me will be safer.

    Do you think the National Empowerment Center would support this? As part of the mental health system, you have much more influence than people like me. I wish you would give this some consideration. It would end these killings once and for all, and stop the prejudice against people like me.

    Maybe your group could be funded to work on this program. Then it would be done more humanely.

    Thank you for the great work you are doing, and please think about my suggestion.

    • Hi Robert:

      Personally I don’t agree with profiling and honestly your comments frighten me, I’m sorry you feel that way. That is exactly what they did in Nazi Germany and I’m afraid that is the direction we are heading… There is a better approach.

    • Hey Robert,

      If you are on the *data base*, your comment about exterminating people found by psychiatric experts to be ‘likely to kill’ just might bump you to the *potentially dangerous* category ! In any case talking about a death sentence for *potential killers* certainly takes away some of your credibility for saying you don’t wish to harm anyone!

      I don’t see how you could be serious, but appreciate the way you chose to make a point about a data base and *potential* threat to those on it.

      Consider the benefit of meaningful contribution to one’s community; education reform a la citizens coop-ing to provide out of classroom learning- projects– A community that ACTS together to demonstrate respect and love for their kids. That would take a lot of work/effort— leaving little time to ruminate over data bases…*potentially*!!!

    • I don’t believe that there are very many “psychiatric experts” running around these days. It’s all just a guessing game and no one can predict who will go out and kill themselves or someone else. I for one certainly don’t agree with this approach at all. As Oryx states, this is the way that Germany chose to take and look what happened with all of that! I myself get very antsy and very upset when the “euthanasia” word is used in any conversation. Before long, you yourself would be on the euthanasia list and would be murdered in the name of safety for society.

    • “I think everyone who is on that database should be evaluated by psychiatric experts who can determine which of them is likely to kill people. Then those people should be euthanized, for their own good and society’s good.”

      I think euthanasia should be a person’s free will choice and I think it should be an option.

      • Oryx, your perspective is revolutionary in its simplicity. These three approaches we can all do more/better/adopt. As a parent of school aged children, I’m trying. Need to try harder. We all do.

        One thing that I loved discovering in children’s school, was the concept of Multiple Intelligences, an educational approach developed by Howard Gardner. It teaches that we all have unique intelligences, strengths, and that is is only by valuing, making room for, and including them all, that a community can be truly smart and healthy. This could be a blueprint, along with other wise views, for community and individual healing and “allophilia” in action.

        Parker Palmer is another fantastic resource for developing community inclusion and healing, he has also been a revolutionary thinker in Educational theory and reform, bringing his Quaker principles to bear. His Circles of Trust process is noteworthy for community organizing, support and growth. http://www.couragerenewal.org/about/foundations

        Interestingly, Parker Palmer has had his own struggles with debilitating depression.

        As a parent of young children, you are in a wonderful place to discover some practices and philosophies that can really empower your three point plan!

        Thank you for reminding me of these resources. I’m inspired to look again and see how we can bring them into our family support programs and my own home and community.

        I appreciate your work and perspective so much, Oryx. Thank you.

        Jen

  5. 1)http://www.amazon.com/Rampage-Social-Roots-School-Shootings/dp/0465051030/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1360149993&sr=1-5&keywords=school+shootings+in+america is sociological analysis of school shootings (2004, still applies)- isolated white young men in rural or relatively wealthy suburbs; share social experiences of “otherness”– exactly what Oryx says; your prescription could prevent some mass murders.

    2)would encourage you to re-title #2; the effect of MA legislation to “prevent bullying” is that there are many conversations about bullies; isn’t it better to have many conversations about “how do we have a loving,caring school which is safe for all”?? [thanks to Joan Webster on that]

    3)as an aging basketball wannabe[have several games for you when you are in Boston, Oryx, seriously]. it is lovely to notice, as you do, the power we have w a few words, a few smiles, a few hand motions, to transform a teammate from glum/outofit/angry into a joyous and more effective player. More fun, almost, than hitting the winning three pointer.
    Most people don’t realize their own power in any situation; Annie Dillard, “Grace happens, the least we can do is notice.”

    4)We are going to get background checks nationally,– 92% of americans support it; even the NRA liked it a few years ago.
    Public Health folks [David Hemenway book on guns; or "While we were sleeping"] says it helps, a bit.
    i am mixed– big brother vs. social good of preventing 700,000 people potentially dangerous from having guns.
    Can we trust feds to identify “dangerous” people [not mentally ill, that is totally bogus, we all know] based on psych records? or based on courts? What does the Feinstein bill actually say?

  6. Thank you, Oryx, you make such good points.

    It seems like our society is so divided in so many ways. A friend of mine points out that when many people are against even providing basic healthcare for fellow citizens, we have come to a prettty sad place. I don’t know if this is even fixable.

    Thanks for your great ideas; I hope this article gets wide circulation. I plan to refer and link to it in my own blog. Good stuff.

  7. This is a great piece, Oryx.

    In a sad society, kids who are different are shunned and ignored, but in our insane society, it’s even worse.

    In our society, kids who are different are routinely labeled/shamed/stigmatized as different and given attention only on that basis.

    In a rehumanized society, many adults would be in contact with many kids, and though all us couldn’t genuinely connect with the differentness of each kid, at least a few of us would. And it often only takes one adult or peer who genuinely connects, who genuinely has affection and respect for that kid to see his/her differentness as cool rather than illness. And kids who feel that their differentness is cared about, respected, and “cool” and who feel connected are not likely going to be filled with rage. Thanks again, Oryx for a really thoughtful piece — Bruce

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