On Mental Health

I rarely weigh in here on anything more important than baseball or video games.  But I feel compelled to weigh in on a whole bunch of things I've been reading and hearing over the past two days.

I heard from a psychologist that the profile of a mass murderer is someone who has been significantly depressed for a long time or has paranoid schizophrenia.  I heard some speculation today that Mr. Lanza had a personality disorder.  I also read from someone close to Lanza's mother that she would not have been embarrassed to get her son mental health support, i.e. would not have ignore any red flags.

On the flip side, I've read a lot about the problem of evil.  How God could allow evil like this to exist, to occur.

I'm not equipped to answer questions about guns and certainly not about theology.  But I feel a certain obligation to talk about mental health.  Someone mentioned yesterday that we need better access to mental health.  Indeed, we do.  But as I alluded to then, there's something much, much deeper that our nation needs to face.  For a long time, the idea of America is that we are free, we are equal, that we all have opportunities, and that we can do anything we want as long as we put our minds to it and work hard enough.  We have to be self-reliant.  Now most people on some level know that this idea isn't entirely true.  But it permeates our culture, our communities, and most of us individually.  And if we believe we are self-reliant, why would we seek help?

We seek help when we feel there's something we are not equipped to deal with.  For example, if I break my foot, I know that I know nothing about how to heal a foot.  So I see a medical doctor.  If smoke is coming out of my engine compartment, I am clueless.  So I see a mechanic.  But I am not clueless when it comes to my brain.  After all, I know my personality more than anyone else, right?  A doctor can know for sure what's happening with my foot.  A mechanic can know for sure what's happening with my car.  But nobody can know exactly what's happening in my brain.  So I'm my own expert.  And if I just put my mind to it and work hard enough, I should be able to fix it.

What makes mental health care so difficult to destigmatize is that we're not experts on the brain yet, at least compared to other parts of the body.  It's funny, too, since it's deemed perfectly acceptable to seek a pastor for a spiritual crisis, and I believe Jeff would admit he's no better at knowing God than a psychiatrist is at knowing the brain.  It doesn't help that mental health care continues to be poorly portrayed in media.  Mental health care used to be very primitive.  Asylums could be awful places.  Just the idea of a lobotomy makes me want to vomit.  And many of the drugs that were used in the mid 20th century had horrible side effects.  I think most people know that things aren't quite like that anymore, but I shake my head every time a therapist or psychiatrist is in a television show.  We see a lot of 8-second diagnoses and primitive head-shrinking, with therapists giving advice and telling people what's wrong with them before breaking the code of ethics by either flirting with the patient or giving the patient's information to the police without a court order.  If I was at all hesitant about seeking out mental health care, why the hell would I if I thought I was going into that?

I have no doubt as does the nation that Mr. Lanza needed mental health care.  But you know what?  It may not have prevented this tragedy.  Drugs don't fix personality disorders, and it may have been too late for a therapist to make any headway. What I do know is that Mr. Lanza is not the only one who needs it.  You don't have to be at your wit's end.  You don't have to be crazy.  You don't have to be dangerous.

I may be preaching to the choir, but this is true: we ALL need mental health care.  Most people don't need medications.  But for some, they help significantly.  Most people don't need to do a 12-week cognitive session with a therapist to cope with the fallout from a traumatic event.  But for some, it helps significantly.  But we all have emotions.  We all have stress.  We all live in communities.  We all rely on others.  We should never be made to feel shame or embarrassment for this.  But sometimes we do.

This past summer I saw a therapist.  I wasn't having a crisis.  I didn't need medications.  But I was struggling.  As it turns out, a new job, a new house, a new wife, and a new baby all in an eight-month span can be stressful.  I was lucky in that I connected with the first guy I met.  But had he not been the right fit, I would have sought out someone else.  The thing I valued most about my therapist is that at no time did he judge me.  I truly felt I could express every negative thing on my mind.  See, I'm not very good at dealing with negative emotions like anger.  I am terribly conflict avoidant, especially in my personal life.  I'm still not great in these areas, but I'll tell you what seeing a therapist did.  I was able to explore my mental health without feeling shame or embarrassment.  I was never told what I should do.  His patience, understanding, and encouragement gave me the strength to help myself.

So why tell you guys all this?  I feel like the WGOM is a place where people can feel free to discuss their problems without feeling shame or embarrassment.  Many of you are not educated in mental health, but I believe you all understand that having problems with your mood or emotions is not a sign of weakness, nor is it evil.  It's reality for all of us.  And until we live in a society that understands this, we will continue to have tragedies like yesterday.  I'm not so naive to think this is a problem that will be solved in my lifetime, or probably ever.  But if even a small improvement can save someone's life down the road, it's worth it.

Teach your children that it's normal to feel negative emotions.  That it's normal to want to confide in others.  That's it's normal to rely on others.  Teach them that life is a dance where sometimes you're the one being the rock for others, and sometimes you need that rock to lean on.  Also, as your patience and resolve allows, teach your friends.  And your family.

5 thoughts on “On Mental Health”

  1. Really, really well-written Beau.

    I wonder if the tide is slowing changing about the stigma of seeking help. Almost everyone close to me (and myself included) has seen a mental health professional at some point or other for more than just a one-time visit.

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