THE BLOG

Let's Talk About Mental Health, Not "Evil"

12/17/2012 12:15 EST | Updated 02/16/2013 05:12 EST
AP
This undated photo shows Adam Lanza posing for a group photo of the technology club which appeared in the Newtown High School yearbook. Authorities have identified Lanza as the gunman who killed his mother at their home and then opened fire Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, inside an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 people, including 20 children, before killing himself. Richard Novia, a one-time adviser to the technology club, verified that the photo shows Lanza. (AP Photo)

Friday's tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was unthinkable. How a young person can take the lives of so many other young people is not something any of us are prepared to make sense of. The events in Newtown sparked a lot of Internet discussion on gun control and the media's representation of children following violent events. However, as is the case with most well-covered human tragedies, in the day following the events in Newtown, mental health discourse was decidedly missing from the reporting.

I am certain in the days to come, when our feelings are less fresh, journalists and bloggers will slowly begin to address how mental health may have played a role in this tragedy. But to me the fact that mental health is still an afterthought is frightening. Leaving mental health out of the initial discussion means lost opportunities to educate and de-stigmatize mental illness when audience interest is peaked. Missing these opportunities not only perpetuates the silence surrounding mental health, but also over-simplifies discussions on what we can do to prevent such acts from happening in the future.

Perhaps a most basic way to initiate a discussion on how mental health plays into this tragedy is to identify how a discussion of mental health is relevant to each individual involved with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Adam Lanza

"Evil visited this community today," the Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy said following the shooting. Such words are not uncommon following acts of violence, but their prominence still made me cringe. I have to ask, whose "evil" are we talking about when we classify this tragedy as such? Does such language and the emphasis we place on it imply that we believe that Adam Lanza was an innately evil and bad person?

I'm reminded of the 2008 Greyhound bus murder of Timothy McClean. Vince Li, who, was convicted of beheading Mclean, had schizophrenia and was found to be not criminally responsible for the crime. In the early days following the terrifying event, Li was similarly villainized in the media. And yet, this candid interview with Li speaks to how gravely schizophrenia dictated his life.

It is short-sighted to look at a man who killed 27 people and subsequently killed himself without thinking about how this man might have been struggling prior to this experience. There have been unconfirmed suggestions that Adam might have been living with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, a personality disorder, or other mental illness.

Furthermore, Adam Lanza was 20 years old. With so much discussion on the innocence of children, and our collective grief over the fact that the children lost will not have the opportunity to live full and meaningful lives, it seems relevant to think about how young Adam was at the time of his crime and death.

Regardless of Adam's specific diagnosis, it seems relevant to wonder what kind of support system he had. We don't know what kind of relationships he had with family and friends and we don't know if he had access to formal, as well as these informal, supports.

Last night, President Obama shared that he and other parents exposed to this tragedy will "hug our children a little tighter and we'll tell them that we love them." But sometimes mental illness is so significant that it is too much for parents or families to cope with on their own. And sometimes hugs and love simply aren't part of a family dynamic.

We have no idea what kind of relationship Adam had with his family, but we do know that he is accused of murdering his mother who we can suppose was a member of his support system. This tremendous and fatal breakdown demonstrates that this was a family who could have benefited some sort of external support system.

Survivors

When I first heard about the shooting in Newtown, my mind immediately went to the child and adult survivors; those who witnessed chaos and killing happening all around them and likely feared for their own lives. For these individuals, this is a critical time to address issues of mental health and mental illness.

The risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the survivors is real, and prolonged impact from this trauma is certainly possible. Witnessing trauma can impact a person's ability to form relationships with others; lead to mental health issues such as anxiety or depression; bring about substance abuse or other unhealthy means of coping with stress such as self-harm; and result in difficulty performing the tasks of every day life.

For the children at the school, losing their classmates will inevitably impact social dynamics. Some children will have lost peers whom they relied on to feel safe in their school, some will have lost bullies, some will have lost siblings. Some will show remarkable resilience and be able to return to their activities of daily living without much difficulty, and others will have intensified fears, academic difficulties and isolative tendencies.

Similar to the discussion on Adam Lanza, we need to think about what kinds of support systems the survivors had in place prior to this incident. Do the children involved have adequate resources in the home to sooth their anxiety and support their recovery? Some children will have been living with pre-existing mental health or learning challenges and may have already had difficulty communicating their social and emotional needs.

And for the adult survivors of this trauma, we need to wonder how their life experience has prepared them to respond to the increased stresses associated with this trauma. How will the adults who witnessed the deaths of their colleagues and students be able to move forward in their personal and professional lives? Some adults will feel feelings of anger, responsibility, guilt, intensified fears, and hopelessness. We need to ask how each survivor's individual mental health needs will be addressed and how they will be equipped with the resources to prevent prolonged impacts of this trauma.

Ryan Lanza

In the early hours following the shooting in Newtown, 24-year-old Ryan Lanza was identified as the primary suspect. It was later reported that police had misidentified the shooter who was in fact Ryan's brother, Adam.

The impact that this experience could have on Ryan Lanza's mental health is undeniable. Ryan lost members of his immediate family -- potentially his support system -- and could experience a number of challenges related to grief, the trauma of losing his family, the trauma of being accused and later questioned about the murder of 27 people, and the trauma of the entire Internet community banding together against him.

We need to ask where someone like Ryan can turn after his life is publicized and the whole world believes him to be, if only temporarily, "evil." Despite the fact that news media have corrected their errors in identifying Ryan as the shooter, public discourse surrounding who this person may or may not be does not seem to have shifted dramatically. In fact, rather than addressing the gravity of this error, it seems that once the error was reported, Ryan Lanza was more or less forgotten.

I don't find this altogether surprising. We tend to forget the players once the sensationalizing dies down. In this case, we were aware of Ryan only until the moment that there was someone more "evil" or a child more "innocent" to look at. And yet, where does Ryan Lanza go from here? What about his recovery? What about his ability to cope without these members of his family, to go about his activities of daily living, to be out in public? What about the prolonged impacts on his mental health?

People watching the story at home

We cannot have a discussion on mental health related to this tragedy without thinking about the mental health of individuals; in other words, all of us, indirectly impacted by this trauma. Feeling fearful; experiencing anxiety; feeling sad or angry -- all of these are normal reactions to exposing oneself to a tragedy like Friday's. We need to be able to talk about these feelings in order to help maintain our own mental health and to prevent our loved ones and ourselves from spiraling without adequate supports.

We know that news media is filled with stories and images of pain and human suffering. We see these images delay; we even normalize their existence. Nevertheless, as individuals we are impacted by exposure to negativity in different ways. Not everyone can handle images of tragedy with the same strength and resilience. Some people truly can separate what they see in from what they experience, but witnessing violent images in the media can be incredibly destabilizing for others.

When we talk about mental health we are not only talking about people who are living with mental illness. We are talking about promoting and maintaining a base level of healthiness for every individual. If we are not talking about our mental and emotional reactions -- if we are labeling those who do as ill or unstable or weak -- we are perpetuating a culture that de-values and often all around ignores mental health. Since we have all had some level of exposure to this tragedy, our individual and collective mental health is relevant here.

And, finally, if we are going to talk about gun control, we need to talk about the mental health of those who use firearms in violent crimes.

This is certainly well beyond the scope of this post, however, a quick mention that discussions on firearm controls and discussions on mental health following the Newtown need not be mutually exclusive.

When we speak about firearm controls we need to go beyond a simple discussion of restriction and look at why individuals might feel powerless enough to perpetuate violence towards others or themselves. Living with poverty; exposure to violence in neighbourhoods; lack of social supports; stigma related to ability or mental health status; racism; underemployment -- all of these can contribute to a person's feelings of powerlessness and inevitably impact a individual's ability to cope in stressful situations. Though restricting access to firearms is a start, relying on restriction fails to address the significant social and structural inequalities that can chip away at a person's resilience and result in tragedy.

Like many violent crimes, Newtown, Connecticut has opened the door for us to ask ourselves how we are going to prevent something like this from happening in the future. We need to ask: How can we be aware of our neighbours, and protect one another from becoming isolated without adequate support? Where do our governments financial priorities lie? How can we hold the media accountable in the initial stages of reporting so that mental health becomes part of an everyday discourse? No discussion on prevention of violent crime is complete without an open and honest consideration of mental health. And before it is once again too little too late, we need to start normalizing this discussion now.

Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting