Column: Removing the stigma

By Adam Mehring

The Dartmouth, Dartmouth College via UWIRE

It has been a bloody couple of weeks: a barrage of bullets at a midnight movie screening, a hate-fueled massacre at a Sikh temple, a shootout on the outskirts of a Texas university and now, most recently, a close call when a security guard thwarted a gunman’s attempt to open fire at a “pro-family” organization in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

The recent spate of random gun violence has predictably reignited the “right to bear arms” debate, with politicians from both sides of the aisle using these recent incidents as evidence either for stricter or for looser gun laws. Arguments from both sides are flawed — the world created by the right’s desire to loosen gun control legislation would probably resemble a shoot-em-up scene from a mid-century Western flick, while the left’s version with stricter controls ensures the upper hand for criminals who disregard the law and acquire guns anyway. It is unclear whether arming or disarming everyone would have changed the outcome in any of the recent cases of gun violence, but there is certainly a common thread among them: the unstable mind that pulled the trigger.

James Holmes, who gunned down 12 and injured 58 people at a Colorado movie theater, had been seeing a psychiatrist who warned police of a potential threat weeks before Holmes opened fire. Emotional disturbances and alcoholism plagued Wade Page before he opened fire in a Wisconsin Sikh temple, injuring four and killing six others, including himself. Texas shooter Thomas Caffall had been similarly suffering from mental issues. Even though a security guard’s heroics may have prevented a massacre in Washington this week, it is likely that evidence will indicate that Floyd Corkins II, the gunman in that case, had been suffering from some psychological turmoil.

Generally such disturbed individuals display many clear warning signals before perpetrating violence. Alarming behavior, emotional distress, previous incidents — the offender was all but destined to act. Media reports on each incident are so similar that they appear to come from a common template.

Perhaps the clarity of hindsight and our need to find reason during tragedy exaggerates this phenomenon, but I think there is something else at work. If we can so easily uncover psychological triggers after a shooting has already occurred, we should be able to do the same before anyone gets hurt. But we don’t, and it’s because we’re afraid to so.

Despite major advancements in science and theory alike, mental illness remains massively stigmatized in our society. To acknowledge mental illness in ourselves or in others, especially those close to us, is to acknowledge a reality wholly incompatible with our highly technical, precision-based and constantly-moving world. The invisibility of mental illness allows us to deny its existence until it manifests in our physical reality — as violence, as suicide or as any danger to ourselves and others.

Failing to address mental illness allows the illness to grow until its effects are undeniable and, sometimes, indiscriminating between the self and others. Had Page received adequate help for his emotional distress and drinking habits, the Wisconsin Sikh temple may have had a peaceful morning of prayer. If officers had not shrugged off warnings about Holmes, a crowd of Colorado moviegoers may have simply enjoyed the latest Batman movie. And had he been compliant with his medication regimen, Jared Loughner — who shot and killed six and injured 14, including former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in Arizona last year — may have found peace from the voices in his head.

The horrible irony of mental illness is that sufferers are often left without the capacity to help themselves — they may not be able to recognize their illness or might feel intrinsically averse to receiving help. Thus, we must recognize and acknowledge mental illness when it is present and make sure that adequate treatment is given.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year, and of those adults, fewer than one-third of adults with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services. It is time to end the stigma. We need to accept mental illness as a natural part of human existence.

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