I will continue to hold those who have lost loved ones to violence in my thoughts and I will remember them in my prayers. But I will also continue to do the messy, hard and often painful work of evaluating and managing those who struggle with mental health issues.
Of course, when mass shootings and tragedies that are beyond our comprehension occur, we react and then our reaction turns to blame and search for a “fix.” We become polarized in our beliefs about the problem—guns, mental illness, parenting and bullying. Unfortunately, in this black and white thinking and finger pointing, we lose our ability to do the hard and tedious work of acknowledging the complexity of issues that surround hate, isolation, delusional thinking and politics.
First, one size does not fit all in the category of “mental illness.” There are conditions that are transient and treatable, there are brain disorders that are chronic but manageable, there are those that wax and wane with such intensity that the person can change rapidly, and then there are those diseases that are progressive and irreversible.
Adding to this is the ability or inability to cope with the unique challenges of isolation and hate that has become part of our world. We tell children not to hate or bully but they see adults doing it to each other every day particularly in the world of social media.
Then, there is the political belief that mental health and substance abuse is important but only when we want to use it as a way to deflect the argument away from something else. We talk about mental illness as being important, but programs that help people who have the most need and the least resources are often the first to be cut in a budget. It is either important or it isn’t.
As a psychologist for almost thirty years, I have worked with people struggling with a wide variety of mental health issues. I have had a front row seat to observing the pain of parents who have lost children to violence. And, I have sat with those who have killed in a fit of rage, a delusional episode or who were impaired due to substances.
I evaluate the capacity/competency of people to make decisions every day. It is a messy and hard process. It requires stepping into our own biases about rights and responsibilities. When an individual lacks the capacity to weigh the risks and benefits of their own actions, they are found incompetent. Their rights and privileges are removed for their own safety and that of others.
We don’t allow people with brain disease to drive when they are no longer cognitively capable. It is a painful process to remove somebody’s freedom, independence and choice. But to close our eyes to the deficits would put many lives at risk. In similar fashion, we remove guns from homes where the person lacks the capacity to control extreme emotions or irrational thoughts.
The many solutions to our hate filled and violent world will only come when we are able to take one step away from our tightly held beliefs and move to the middle---where solutions don’t come easy or in a quick fix but rather one person, one policy at at time.
Mental health IS the problem.
The lack of reasonable gun laws IS the problem.
But I fear that the bigger problem is our inability to break the divide--caring more about being right than the safety of our children and each other.
We can do better. We need to do better.
The families of those killed are begging not for our kind thoughts and prayers but for our courage to stand up and demand change through shared solutions.