Last week 20 children and 7 women were murdered as I was celebrating my birthday. Hearts leapt into throats and the urge to hug the little ones in our lives pushed the tears further down the cheeks. As you absolutely undoubtedly know, the Internet has since been inundated with debates regarding gun control, violent video games, and even gender roles. Amidst all the vitriol and special snowflake lecturing, it’s the lackluster discussions of psychiatric disorders that seem the least helpful.
Too much of what has been said about mental illness has been too simplistic, too unscientific, too dismissive of the fact that accurately diagnosing a deceased individual often requires years of research. Liza Long’s piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” is brazenly presumptuous and fraught with problems, while most of the outraged responses obscure their excellent points with a few too many personal jabs at her. Of course everyone wants to know as soon as possible why 20 children were chosen as targets, but in this quest our commitment should be to accuracy, not promptness.
Although much of my work is in disability rights, I rarely write about mental illness or psychiatric disorders. I have family members who are mentally ill and many friends who work in psychiatric fields, but I do not know nearly enough about it to speak with any authority and all too often hearsay is copy-and-pasted as fact. Genuine concern is sometimes obscured by sick fascination. The term “mentally ill” is a gigantic umbrella that covers everything from paranoid schizophrenia to anorexia nervosa to hypochondria. Those with psychiatric disorders make up what is perhaps the most misunderstood and diverse minority on earth. Casually tossing out easy-reading explanations before the news cycle gets bored and moves on usually does them more harm than good.
I’ve been reading as much as I can about the complexities of Asperger’s syndrome, schizophrenia, psychopathy, and the countless articles reminding everyone that most mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. I plan on getting my hands on a copy of Richard J. McNally’s What Is Mental Illness? in the new year. Meanwhile, I can only hope that news readers and viewers do not perpetuate the media’s easy-answer approach to something as complex as medicine.
And while filtering out the less helpful material, I found two beautifully honest pieces by Rev. Emily C. Heath and Linton Weeks about what to say to grieving parents. People in bereavement are traditionally not classified as minorities, but fear, misconceptions, and snap judgments usually surround them. (I wrote earlier this year about what loss has taught me about the complexities of grief and the prejudices I used to hold against it.) As we continue the debates aimed at preventing future tragedies, we should learn how to deal with what this tragedy has done to those closest to it.