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.
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.