Saved From Violence Part 3: The Social Dimension of Mental Illness
As the nation seeks a meaningful policy response to the Newtown mass killings, the role of mental illness is rightly being examined. We need to make whatever changes are necessary to ensure adequate care is readily available. Alleviating the suffering of individuals is the right thing to do. But mental illness is not, strictly speaking, an individual illness. It has a social component as well and that’s the subject of my reflections today.
The easiest social component to see is what those we label mentally ill suffer as a result of our culture’s response to them. Being misunderstood, judged, ostracized and bullied is unfortunately a central part of their life experiences. A friend of mine who suffers from learning disabilities, mental illness and has been diagnosed with autism! recently sent me a poem about his experience of being abused by so-called normal society. It’s called Autism is a Gift. Here’s just one stanza:
Do you know what it’s like to be the victim of name calling?! the bullying?! and the stigma?! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be such a lonesome enigma?! Do you know what it’s like when no one wants to be your friend?! Do you know what it’s like when the torment seems to have no end?! You don’t know how any of this feels! it may seem really strange to you, but for me it is normal and ever so real, but I’ve got to find a way around it so that I can begin to heal.
My friend deserves more compassion from our society not as a defense against potential violence, but because he’s a human being. As the poem’s title suggests, his difference does not torment him. We do.
Would it be so hard to understand the social component, if my friend had suicidal thoughts now and then? I think not. But there are those whose suicidal thoughts stem from depression, a mental illness that seems to strike without rhyme or reason. It’s harder to see the social component to depression and by raising the question I am not trying to suggest that society is responsible for suicide or that we could have done something differently to prevent it. But rather than see depressed individuals as isolated, autonomous actors, we need to understand that suicidal thoughts do not arise spontaneously. They originate in the connective tissue that binds the individual to the culture at large.
For example, it is hard to deny that our culture is fixated on death. We live so much in fear of our mortality that we marginalize the old and idolize youth. By trying to push death to the margins, we paradoxically place it at the center of all our psychic energy. We also use our suffering, what might be thought of as little deaths, as a weapon against others. Acting the martyr means that we are resentfully occupying the place of victim as an accusation against our persecutors. And let us not forget the complex life-death calculations we make as part of our armed invasions, drone attacks, and the endless war on terror. We target some for life and some for death, tolerating the collateral deaths of women and children as the cost of killing our enemy. Death and calculations about death permeate our culture. That death would occupy a central place in the mind of an individual, then, is not so strange or abnormal. Perhaps their “illness” lies in a weakened ability to practice sophisticated forms of denial. My point here is that if we diagnose someone who is fixated on death as mentally ill, then perhaps our entire culture is suffering from the same illness.
Let’s turn to the social component in the use of violence by those we label mentally ill. In a recent article in the New York Times, author and professor of criminal justice Adam Lankford shared the results of his three year study of the causes of both suicide terrorists and suicide rampage shooters and found that they shared three things in common. The first we have already discussed, a desire to die. Another is the desire for fame and glory through killing. That hardly needs my commentary – we glorify violence and those who use it on TV, at the movies, in video games, and in war. If it’s a symptom of mental illness to think killing will bring you glory, then again, we all suffer that illness in common.
The other thing Lankford discovered that they shared in common is “a deep sense of victimization… the aggrieved individual feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified.” I’d like to suggest that the sense of victimization and the justification of violence against persecutors is hardly a symptom of mental illness. Victims hold a privileged position in our society. We listen to victims, we feel compelled to take their side and punish whoever they identify as their persecutors. Feeling like a victim is not an illness; it is part of how we experience ourselves on a daily basis. We feel insulted, aggrieved, annoyed, misunderstood and ignored every day. The problem with mentally ill people, we assert, is that their claims of victimization are delusional or exaggerated while ours are reasonable. When they use violence we say that no matter how aggrieved they may have felt, they are no longer victims but perpetrators. If that is true of the mentally ill, then I’d like to suggest that it is also true of us. When we use violence to soothe our wounded pride, even to retaliate for violence perpetrated against us, we are no longer victims. We have become perpetrators just like those we seek justice against, just like suicidal rampage shooters. But we continue to insist the opposite is true: Our violence is different; our violence is justified, noble, necessary. And we insist that our victims are the right victims, but I wonder how long we can maintain the charade that it’s not okay to kill children in Newtown, CT but it is okay to kill children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our mentally unstable suicide killers are the mirror image of ourselves, using our own logic against us, and haunting us with the consequences of our love affair with violence. We label people mentally ill, we bully and name-call to avoid seeing the painful truth about ourselves. Adam Lanza (Newtown), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Polytech) are the identified patients but our whole society is sick. If we want to develop a meaningful response to suicidal violence, we will need to develop a treatment plan for all of us.
(This is part 3 in the Raven Foundation’s series on the Newtown tragedy. Click here to read Saved From Violence Part 1: A response to the Newtown tragedy, by Suzanne Ross and here for Saved from Violence Part 2: What we owe our children in a violent world, by Adam Ericksen