Our Mental Health Conversation: Post Newtown

Tragedies like the shooting in Newtown tend to lead to discussion of mental health. While it seems appropriate that the silence be broken on this issue, it concerns me that this is often the only context in which the conversation is happening.

Mental healthcare needs to be readily available and accessible to everyone, and that need is clearly not being met. That’s a crucial element of the conversation, and probably the part that comes up the most. What’s being lost, though, is that ‘everyone’ means everyone. It’s not for the “crazy” few, or the “dangerous” Other. It makes me cringe to violence and mental illness treated as synonymous. I think that a willingness to acknowledge that mental health affects all of us, that we’re all human and flawed and need help, is missing from the conversation.

Hindsight is 20/20, and so the media are quick to comment on the warning signs Lanza displayed in the time leading up to the incident. We don’t know much about Lanza’s mental health history, and while I’m not comfortable with any kind of specific speculation, it’s obvious that he wasn’t well. Nobody could have definitively known far ahead of time what he was planning to do, but it should have been apparent years ago that he needed help. I don’t know what attempts, if any, to seek help for Adam were made, or why they did not succeed, but it’s likely that some combination of the typical attitudes toward treatment: that it’s ineffective/unnecessary, that it’s “for someone else, not me/my child/my friend/people in a nice town like this” was at play, as well as the fact that even people who want treatment often go through a slow and frustrating process to get it.

The conversation about mental health needs to address that mental healthcare and support are necessary for reasons that extend miles beyond preventing horrific incidents like this one. Yes, seeing an end to mass shootings is a potential best-case outcome to improving the availability of, and public willingness to accept, mental healthcare. But we can’t simplify the Newtown shooting and similar events to matters of mental illness (and vice versa – we can’t equate mental illness with Lanza’s acts), and to do so only further distorts our cultural associations with mental health, perpetuating those harmful attitudes.

This is obviously an extremely complex issue, and what I’ve written here is just an introductory look at an idea about which I intend to write much more. The bottom lines are that:

1. The mental healthcare system is not equipped to meet demand. We cannot allow anyone’s ability to live a fulfilled and productive life slip through the cracks.

2. Changing the general cultural perception of mental health is a major obstacle in achieving progress in mental health treatment. We as individuals need to honestly and fully address the way we see and talk about mental health: what stereotypes are we aware of? To what degree do we believe them? Is this affecting the way we see and treat others? Does it affect the way I see and react to my own struggles? Why is this harmful? It is everyone’s responsibility to work toward a better personal understanding of mental health.

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