I am deeply saddened by the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut. It is difficult to make sense of the despair that motivated the violence. As one who works in the mental health field, I hear too many of my colleagues leap quickly to judgment and blame. However, let me assure you that this tragedy was not due to mental illness.
First, let’s address just what we mean by mental illness. It is not a disease, disorder or illness. It is not a chemical imbalance of the brain. There are no biochemical markers, no biological tests, no hard evidence at all, to \”prove\” the existence of \”mental illness.\” Proof means the ability to demonstrate a reliable association between a clearly specified pattern of observables and other reliably measurable event(s) that operate as antecedents. (This is same level of proof used for TB, cancer, diabetes, etc.) Our thoughts, moods, feelings or emotions are not a disease, disorder or an illness.
So, what is mental illness? It is a psychiatric label of behaviors that deviate from an arbitrary norm. If you tell a friend that you feel depressed, the friend will acknowledge the feeling and suggest activity that will help you feel better. If you tell a psychiatrist you feel depressed, you’ll be labeled as having depression (as if it’s a disease instead of a feeling) and given powerful drugs to mask your feeling.
Over ninety percent of people in the public mental health system are survivors of abuse, neglect or trauma. The surest way to create a “mentally ill” adult is to abuse, neglect or traumatize a child. Additionally, people in the public mental health system die over 25-years younger than the general population. Research into the many shootings in recent years indicate that the shooters all had some common traits. They were all survivors of abuse, neglect or trauma. They all had taken psychiatric drugs that are known to sometimes cause heightened homicidal or suicidal feelings.
My wife and I offered sewing classes in our home to over 55 neighborhood kids. We encountered every sort of horror imaginable in the lives of these kids. They survived abuse, neglect and trauma in their homes and at school. Their lives were filled with the sort of despair that could drive them to become a shooter some day. We reached out with love and caring and understanding and concern. We knew we could never undo the hurt and harm that had been done to them but we could provide a balance instead. We gave so that the children would have something positive to balance out some of the negative in their lives. It’s our hope and belief that we can somehow mitigate some of the despair and that at some point these children will choose to not pull a trigger and instead recall the positive, warm and caring that gave hope.
In Newtown, the shooter had been psychiatrically labeled. He felt despair. He experienced a divorce in which he felt unloved and unwanted. He felt despair. His mom was seeking guardianship to force him into unwanted treatment. He felt despair. He felt that his mom loved her friends and the children at school more than him and just wanted him to go away. He felt overwhelming despair.
There are no excuses to justify the sad and unfortunate taking of life in Newtown, but I can’t help but wonder if there might not have been a different course if Adam had something to balance and mitigate some of the despair. Instead of a system of force and coercion that further traumatizes people, what might have been the path he’d have chosen if there were a system of caring and compassion that reached out to those who despair. What if there’d have been a system that was attractive and desired instead of a system of force and coercion?
What if there’d have been a system that had trauma sensitive peers who knew what it’s like and made a caring connection? I can only imagine that this tragedy could have been avoided and Adam would have chosen another path that wouldn’t have been so full of despair and violence. Perhaps in a life with choices and options and hope and not a life of trauma, psych drugs and despair, force and coercion, Adam would have chosen a different path and this tragedy could have been avoided. We have to change for a better future.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.