Sunday, February 10, 2013

Infamous Shooters: A long one on Gun Violence, Mental Illness, Patriarchy and Race

The December 2012 Newtown mass shooting spree garnered a lot of attention and for good reason. Adam Lanza shot 20 1st graders and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary. Now we have ex-police officer Christopher Dorner, who in a fight against the LAPD, has killed three people and intends to shoot a whole lot more. There is a question of mental illness for both. 

If you do a good dose of internet reading, you’ll see that many opinions are inclusive of mental health. Some believe that mental health is at the root of the problem. Some feel that racial bias prompts our willingness to dissect and dice the events so fine – that it is because we are more inclined to worry when a white community is involved. Some are now paying attention to the fact that gender plays a role in these recent events. I believe in all the above. Whatever you put at the forefront; I am pleased if you included mental health as an issue.

I do appreciate the fact that so many of these online articles state that mental illness is to be “treated”, but the tone that follows is often angry and seems to suggest we “lock em’ up!” – as if somehow we will then be safe to turn our back – somehow that will solve the problem. We should not worry solely about the innocent bystanders but also the safety of the mentally ill individuals involved.

David Kopel at the Wall Street Journal, wrote; 

“In the mid-1960s, many of the killings would have been prevented because the severely mentally ill would have been confined and cared for in a state institution. But today, while government at most every level has bloated over the past half-century, mental-health treatment has been decimated. According to a study released in July by the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of state hospital beds in America per capita has plummeted to 1850 levels, or 14.1 beds per 100,000 people.”

Not all mentally ill individuals who also display violence are in need of state hospitalizations. But yes, intensive treatment is important and sometimes a locked setting is necessary and yes we need more hospital beds.

If state hospital is not needed, lower levels of care can serve as options. Unfortunately, IMD (Institutions for the Mentally Diseased) beds are also limited. IMDs are a lower level of care from State Hospitals and they are also locked. Many of the patients may have a history of violence, most often during periods of acute psychosis. The goal is to work with the patient so they can continue on the road to recovery and independence.

We don’t know much about the shooters' supposed illnesses. We don’t know the diagnoses, we don’t know what state of illness they were existing in, and we don’t know if the primary Axis I diagnoses were not accompanied by an Axis II personality disorder. Many of us in the field are assuming Anti-Personality disorder, formerly known as Sociopathy and prior to that, Psychopathy. Essentially it is a characteralogical disorder in which one experiences an extreme lack of empathy and therefore can commit violent or deceitful acts without remorse. 

We are all clamoring for answers but the fact is we know little about these men. Next to nothing. More will be released but going forward we need to address mental health and not just for the purpose of avoiding mass killings but because to be mentally ill is often a place of suffering. 

So many things come down to monies. Insurance companies are not set up for mental health in the same way that they are for medical health. I believe this is in part because insurance companies capitalize on the myth that mental illness is not as serious as medical disorders such as diabetes or even cancer. Not only is there a stigma against those with mental illnesses but also there are some who harbor the idea that mental illness either doesn’t exist or it can’t be treated.

President Obama has now put forth initiatives to allow wide access to Medicaid; to train teachers to recognize signs of mental illness in students; and to provide psychoeducation to those who need it. To learn more about Obama’s proposals, read here. 

There has been some mention about reducing stigma in the news, but very little has been suggested. All we’ve heard is that we should reduce stigma by knowing that not all with mental illnesses are violent. That’s it?

Here are three of my suggestions. 

1) Remove the word “crazy” when referring to those with mental illnesses. This is challenge even for some mental health professionals. We use “crazy” very flippantly and at times with great earnest and conviction. I use “crazy” when suggesting that something is ridiculous but not when referring to the behavior of someone who is sick. Would you want this label if you were sick?

2) Do not refer to someone as “schizophrenic” or “a schizophrenic”. An individual is not their illness and often those who have enough insight to know that they are ill, often feel ashamed. We use this type of language with various medical illnesses as well. We say; “s/he is diabetic.” They are not diabetic, they have diabetes. It may sound trivial, but this minor shift in language brings forth a huge shift in consciousness and that is what we need.

3) Remove the “us vs. they” mentality. We are not better than a person with mental illness and more than we are better than someone with diabetes or cancer.

We mourn for those lost and we hope for healing. Let us work together to rally around the issues of gun violence and mental illness. 

Although this is of the utmost importance, it is also important to understand that it doesn't stop with mental illness. Let's talk patriarchy. Notice that all of these killers are male. Most often they are white men. It's not a coincidence that violence often comes from men as it is clear that our precious boys are taught that anger is the only emotion worth praising. Boys are limited by an unforgiving social construct as are girls who are taught that all that ushy gushy emotional stuff is their domain. We teach boys to be "real men" and gun advertisements foist the idea that violence is power.

The idea that there is such a thing as a "real man" is problematic even when referencing a positive. Are real men feminists? Are real men sensitive?  How often do we refer to "real women?" You catch my drift.

Above is a ad for Bushmaster gun company which features the same type of gun, that Lanza used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Although each of the infamous shooters that we have been confronted with, experience an illness that effects them uniquely; it is important to understand that especially among privileged white men, a gun can represent entitlement and control.

The always articulate anti-sexist educator and author, Jackson Katz, tells us in his Huffington Post article; "So much of the commentary about school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, focuses on "people" who have problems, "individuals" who suffer from depression, and "shooters" whose motives remain obtuse. When opinion leaders start talking about the men who commit these rampages, and ask questions like: "why is it almost always men who do these horrible things?" and then follow that up, we will have a much better chance of finding workable solutions to the outrageous level of violence in our society." 

The equally educated sociologist, anti-sexist educator and author, Michael Kimmel, explains in his own Huffington post article, that race definitely has its place in the argument. He explains that in urban environments, men of color, can be violent but the violence is often geared towards those specific people who they believe have wronged them. 

"White men, on the other hand, have a somewhat more grandiose purpose: they want to destroy the entire world in some cataclysmic, video-game, and action movie-inspired apocalypse. If I'm going to die, then so is everybody else, they seem to say. Yes, of course, this is mental illness speaking: but it is mental illness speaking with a voice that has a race and a gender." 

Anti-racist educator and speaker, Tim Wise, explained in an emotional post on his website, that society ignores the fact that are not only privileged white males perpetrating violence, but privileged white communities compound this offense by insisting that such evils aren't supposed to happen in their pleasant neighborhoods. Wise drives this point home when he says; "Still, after all these years, and all these sanguinary calamities, there remains the utter surprise that yes, evil can visit the “nice” places too. What’s that you say? Childhood death isn’t just for the brown and poor anymore? Not merely a special burden to be borne by the residents of South Chicago, West Philadelphia, or Central City New Orleans? There is dysfunction and pathology and general awfulness where some of the beautiful people too reside? Yes precious, yes indeed. This time would you please write it down?" 

The way we look at violence is motivated by our worldview and we can learn a lot from our own knee-jerk reactions. "Why is this happening?" is a more appropriate response than "this wasn't supposed to happen here." 

"Why?" is a logical and understandable question, and "Why me?" or "Why us?" makes sense as well. But when you insist that your town is more worthy of peace and safety than others, then it is time to look address the inner racism that lies within. 

Lastly, I'd like to touch upon the concept of legacy. Ex-policeman Christopher Dorner wrote a manifesto in which he described the pain and anger towards the LAPD as they supposedly ignored his 2007 complaint that his female partner used excessive force upon a mentally ill suspect. He believes the LAPD have tarnished his good name. In his manifesto which seemingly doubles as a suicide letter, he speaks earnestly of his legacy which he wants to preserve. 

I know nothing about this man but what he says about the concept of a legacy is reminiscent of so many men I have known. Women are not immune to the wish to be admired after death, but in my experience it is largely the desire of men. 

While seemingly benign, I believe that the wish to preserve a legacy is directly linked to patriarchal structures. When we leave this earth, we will not be able to look down on those who miss us. We will not witness our own funerals. It is a romantic idea that is often held by men who are taught to be admired for what they do rather than who they are as people. The question of what our loved ones or our not so loved ones will think of us when we pass is not uncommon for suicidal individuals.

Male or not, ill or not, there is no shame in wishing to be admired, but it is an added stressor that plagues too many. To be consumed by what others will think of us to such a profound level, is to remove or disable the ability to fully appreciate the positive nuances that make us unique and the ability to be truly present with others.

Folks, it's more than just guns. It's so much more. Policy change is important, but so are our attitudes. It's time for a shift in consciousness.  

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