Mind Matters — Society’s Role in Mental Health

Recently I attended a one-woman play called “Crazy for Life.” The actress depicted herself through the years of her suffering with bipolar disorder. She was never violent, but she did have psychotic “episodes,” out of consensual reality enough, to dance down the street naked. She, after several hospitalizations and attempts at therapy and medication, was restored to a normative state. I also attended a conference on suicide prevention. Both events reminded me of the recent murder-suicide that occurred at Virginia Tech. How do we reconcile such terrible and terrifying events?

Apparently, the young student Cho was very troubled and people around him observed this. What others saw seemed to be prognostications for the possibility of violent action. My purpose here is not to belabor the complexities of how such observations should or should not preempt the right for a person’s privacy. One of my concerns (of the many) that I have had from this event is how will mental illness be stigmatized all the more: that all people with mental illness will be considered violent. In fact, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.

There are many factors that play into how an individual may elect the route of homicide-suicide. Particular cultural issues may exacerbate the stigma of mental illness, but keep in mind that our good old American melting pot culture doesn’t do a very good job of dissipating stigma either. Notice the crumbling infrastructure of community mental health services across the nation: then note how many homeless are mentally ill. Notice how insurance companies consider mental health concerns to be the Cinderella sister (yet to meet her prince of parity) of general medical illnesses. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are “allowed” (not welcomed perhaps but at least allowed). Post partum depression, bipolar disorder? Not so “acceptable.”

There is a concept called “restorative justice” wherein the acts of an individual relate directly to the community. One of the concerns of restorative justice is to confront the dis-ease of the community in which a disorder—a violent act, for example, occurs. So instead of simply pointing a finger at one individual who indeed must own his own responsibility and guilt, restorative justice asks of us to look at the community from which such acts arose. Restorative justice asks what do we need to do in response to such horrors? What do we need to do to address gun violence? What do we need to do to remove the stigma of mental illness? What do we need to do to restore the balance between the community and the individual?

Some helpful information: