September 11 seems like a fitting day to reflect. Thought the incident that sparked this post occurred years ago, the feelings and concerns remain the same. New event occur that raise the same questions: how do we cope with violence, injustice, human-caused trauma? How do we care for ourselves and each other when vicariously traumatized?
I was in the midst of writing a 2011 goals and intentions post this past weekend, when the news from Arizona hit. Tucson is a special place to me, ever since my doctoral internship year spent at the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Center. For the next two days that was about all I could focus on. Perhaps I’ll get back to that original post, but New Year’s goals seemed trivial in light of this tragedy first. Then again, maybe not.
It has taken me this long to formulate my thoughts, to put words to my feelings and reactions. I knew immediately what I did not want to write. I did not want to add my voice to the arm-chair speculations, the many quick to “diagnose” someone they had never met based on bits of reported information or disjointed and confusing YouTube videos. Let’s remember, fellow mental health professionals, that it is unethical to “diagnose” someone we have not assessed and have no professional relationship with.
When random, public violence occurs like this, we all can feel vicariously traumatized. We are shocked, horrified, grief-stricken and angry. We look for someone to blame. We look for reasons, answers to the unanswerable “whys” of human-on-human violence.
Why do we do that? Why do we speculate about the motives, the mental state, the triggering influences of a heinous act like this? I suspect it is about our desire for control, our need to restore sense and meaning when it has been torn asunder.
How easy it is to feel angry at those we see as responsible, both the shooter and those we may see as inciting this sort of violence. Remember, violence comes in the form of words too. Anger in the face of injustice makes sense. But anger in the form of public expressions of hatred and personal attacks adds more fuel to the fire.
If we believe that words have power, as I do, let’s also reflect on another word getting bandied about quite a bit: “Crazy” . As we are thinking about the impact of words, let us remember that calling someone “crazy” or “a nut job” rather than “a person who is mentally ill” contributes to the stigmatization of mental health issues.
We also need to keep in mind that knowing that someone is mentally ill does not tell us anything about their propensity for violence. Check out Oxford psychiatrist Seena Fazel‘s epidemiological research on mental illness and violence here and review of the findings in this article at Slate by Vaughan Bell:
A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. Two similar analyses on bipolar patients showed, along similar lines, that the risk of violent crime is fractionally increased by the illness, while it goes up substantially among those who are dependent on intoxicating substances. In other words, it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.
We hold onto this myth that mental illness equals and explains violence to try to help us make sense of the senseless, to try to regain our illusion of control. The reality is we are not good predictors of this sort of human violence. Period.
So how do we make sense of this sort of horrific event? How do we pick up the pieces and move forward? And can we do so in a way that contributes something, in a way that enriches us rather than keeps us stuck in a place of despair or retaliatory anger?
Don’t get me wrong: there is a place and time for righteous anger. I have felt plenty angry in the aftermath of this tragedy. I also believe there then comes a time for living what we want to see more of in the world. Do you want peace? Empathy for each other? Civil discourse? How can you start to live that yourself rather than decrying the lack of it in others?
Here are my intentions in the aftermath of the shootings in Tucson:
- I want to move forward being more mindful than ever of the impact of words. I want to stay aware of how I talk about events and people, to remove any language of violence, of hate, of stigmatization. I plan to call for the same from others around me: be they friends, colleagues or elected officials.
- I further intend to recommit myself to the work of decreasing the stigmatization of mental health issues. While it is true that we do not have the power to force treatment on someone, we do have the power to make community-based treatment options more readily available and to decrease barriers to care by continuing to work on destigmatizing mental illness. Checking our language and challenging myths and misconceptions are stigma decreasing actions we all can take.
- I also intend to not allow myself to stay stuck in the horror, anger or despair. I can focus beyond all of that to examples of hope and goodness that emerge in times of human crisis. One possibly very ill person committed horrible acts. Many, many others responded with courage and kindness, doing the right thing automatically for those around them even at great risk to themselves. I find those stories to be profoundly moving and a powerful reminder that we can all choose to do the same.