How can I reconcile my volunteer work to remove mental illness stigmas with learning that a man I once worked with and admired was the shooter in a recent Chicago murder and death by suicide in which depression likely played a role?
It’s a tough question; one I’ve been particularly contemplating since the Germanwings aircraft crash into the French Alps—a murder/suicide with 150 victims and a link to the co-pilot’s mental illness so clear that a psychiatrist’s note saying he was mentally unfit to work was found torn up in the co-pilot’s apartment.
The rare instances where mental illness contributes to mass tragedies—such as Germanwings, the Sandy Hook school slaughter and the Colorado theater massacre—dominates media coverage of mental health issues, creating a perception of a burgeoning issue particularly around murder/suicides. “The perception from media reports would be that the incidence is greatly increasing,” Dr. Scott Eliason reported several years ago in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, “but the data that we have collected show murder-suicide to be a very rare event that seems relatively constant.”
Regardless, because so few who struggle with mental health challenges acknowledge this aspect of our lives, exposure to mental illness as violent tragedy becomes the image of the disease to far too many.
Once this violent image is embedded, fear can spur a desire to stay away from those struggling to achieve mental health in much the same way as segregation metastasizes when those without regular interaction across racial, ethnic or other boundaries hear about another group only through media reports about a small percentage of its violent members.
Fear is best alleviated through exposure, an exposure almost every American unknowingly receives to mental illness on a daily basis. Continue reading