The Mental Health Equation Part III

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world                        I John 2:16 (New Living)

The term “mental illness” is very broad. It encompasses common problems such as anxiety and depression that everyone, to some degree, faces. Everyone, at one time or another, can identify times when anxiety or depression caused them some problems. Those conditions are on a continuum, and some people suffer a great deal, some just a little.

The term “mental illness” also includes more significant problems such as psychotic conditions where a person loses touch with reality to a greater or lesser degree. These were the conditions I discussed earlier. The patients at the state hospital where I worked were often psychotic. In some cases, patients had neurological conditions that went undiagnosed. Other patients may have had some long-term residual effects of brain damage and they simply could not function anywhere else.

Finally, there is a category of mental illness conditions called Personality Disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), describes those disorders as “a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time”. Such conditions are not psychotic disorders, but they are difficult to treat. This is especially true since many people with personality disorders do not seek treatment, believing that the problem they have is not an internal one, “but it’s all those people around me!”

All this is to say that blaming much of the violence we experience, especially mass shootings, on mental illness is much too simplistic an explanation, given the broad range of diagnoses that “mental illness” encompasses.

Many years ago, I was setting up some supervised community homes for persons recovering from mental illness. Needless to say, we experienced fierce community opposition from people who did not want “mentally ill people in my neighborhood”. I understood their concerns, their fears.

Our arguments to that included the fact that, statistically, mentally ill people were more likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators of it. Further, those neighbors were not aware, and we of course could not tell them, that there were already people in their neighborhood who had been released from a mental institution. Those people had already assimilated into the neighborhood.

Mental illness indeed plays a part in some of the mass shootings that happen. However, having dealt with many people over the years who are mentally ill, I suggest that they pose less of a threat, generally, than a person who is simply angry, feels entitled, and has a victim mentality which they believe can only be satisfied by the suffering of others. Those are often people that have long felt powerless, and now, with a weapon, feel powerful somehow.

Is that evil? Is that a personality disorder? Is that mental illness? I don’t know. I tend to wonder sometimes if people with a true mental illness might at times just be more sensitive to an environment that is toxic. Maybe they are the “canaries in the mineshaft” reacting to a culture that is broken and prone to violence for solutions. Please understand, this is not absolution for the murderous actions of killers.

I have no idea, of course, about the actual mental conditions of mass murderers. However, retrospectively, we try to make a case that a mental illness was the cause of their murderous and evil actions.

Maybe we should also look at the culture of violence that we live in that fuels the flawed thinking of the perpetrators. Maybe culturally we have elevated violent solutions to be some bizarre answer to a perceived sense of powerlessness. I do not know the answers here, but I do know that we need to look at this from a cultural, not simply a “mental health” perspective. There are no easy answers, but we must continue to have reasoned and healthy discussions about a tragedy that continues.

That is the healthy thing to do.

Prayer: Lord, we have departed in pride from your plans. Give us wisdom to proceed, Amen

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