It should be the most glorious of moments.
Holding his grandson in his arms is the brightest of lights in Rob’s life. There’s no joy greater than the chance to “just love that child,” as Rob (not his real name) said recently.
But his son’s wife, his daughter-in-law, sits right next to him, glaring. She won’t leave the room while Rob holds his grandson. She won’t let him out of eyesight. She stays close enough to extract her child in an instant.
Rob has never done anything to hurt another person, certainly not his grandson. “I love that child with every bit of my heart,” he says.
But he feels the fear. He feels the judgment. He feels the absence of trust.
Rob has indeed hurt someone in the past—himself. He’s a suicide attempt survivor, many years removed from the time he suffered so deeply that he tried to end his life.
He’s in a far better place now, armed with an array of coping skills that help him manage his brain chemistry and thoughts.
However, he fears he’s facing a different kind of sentence than the one he tried to impose on himself: one of judgment, or fear, even of anger.
When horrors like the Sutherland, Texas shooting occur, many in the media race to proclaim mental illness as the culprit.
Only in these times does mental illness attract national attention.
With rare exception, however, no nuances are shared. Its doubtful most of the pundits even understand them.
Only for a limited subset of mental illnesses—people struggling with psychosis and substance abuse, while also having a history of domestic violence—is violence against others more common than in the general population.
In fact, the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.
A comprehensive American Journal of Public Health study found “a growing body of research suggests that mass shootings represent anecdotal distortions of, rather than representations of, the actions of ‘mentally ill’ people as an aggregate group.”
Mental illness isn’t a singular disease. The term applies to brain illnesses with vastly different challenges and attributes. But that doesn’t matter if society fears and judges us, not as individuals, but as members of a massive, stigmatized group.
Through facilitating a disclosure consideration program, I’ve met a substantial number of suicide attempt survivors, people who might be considered among those struggling the most with mental health challenges.
A few spent time in prison for mistakes they made, usually under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Others have always been the gentlest of souls, struggling to recognize the value they contribute to our world even when others can see it immediately. All are much more than a diagnosis seen through media-distorted lenses.
It’s important to recognize, with the rarest of exceptions, that we aren’t a risk to those around us.
If we abuse substances, have a history of violence or suffer from an inability to separate thoughts from realities, be cautious. Acts of violence are the best predictors of future violence. Violence is compounded by substance abuse.
If these factors don’t apply, treat us as individuals. Engage with us. For some mental health challenges, the engagement accelerates the coping and healing process. The opportunity to love and be loved matters.
Stigmas around mental health and attempt survivors can be eroded.
When that happens, Rob can stop suffering the sharp sting of frightened eyes. He can fully relish the moments he spends holding his grandson.