James Holmes, the infamous gunman who committed the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado this past July, attended a preliminary hearing yesterday in which police officers and witnesses testified. If he is found fit to stand trial, legal analysts predict that he will plead guilty to the murder charges by reason of insanity, but we will have to wait and see. On the Thursday of Stanford’s finals week, the town of Newtown, Connecticut was forever changed by a shooter that ravaged an elementary school, killing 26 people, most of them 5 and 6 years of age.
While listening to the news, reading the paper and watching the presidential address that followed the Sandy Hook shooting, I could not help but cringe at the word “inexplicable” that was often associated with these tragedies. Obviously most of us could never imagine opening fire on schoolchildren or shooting completely innocent victims in a crowded movie theatre. For those of us who are healthy, functioning members of society, the actions of the gunmen in these two recent high-publicity cases are the absolute antithesis of our engagement with our communities. However, rather than write off the people responsible for these terrible tragedies as lunatics without souls or call their crimes “inexplicable,” I wish we could focus more on the explanations that are available. They are harder to find, and more disturbing.
I am a strong proponent of gun control laws, but as representatives debate new gun control policies, we are only doing half the work if we do not also look at the landscape of mental health care in this country. Without an emphasis on psychiatric care and well-being in our society, we are not adequately addressing the issue at hand.
Along with the faces of the victims whose lives they took, we must also remember the faces of the killers. They are just a few of the many people that slip through the cracks in the institutional system of psychiatric care that typically revolves around the prison system rather than the health care system. In reality, these shooters are simply the highest-profile victims of our current mental health care system, the most dramatic cases out of the thousands of people who do not receive adequate treatment for mental illness. Most people with diagnosable disorders do not go on to shoot dozens of children or moviegoers but rather live unhappy and unproductive lives with little national reverberation.
These massacres suddenly become less “inexplicable” as soon as we consider that these shooters have serious, clinically diagnosable mental disorders that, untreated, make it impossible for them to function normally. Without a legal framework that mandates mental health care (medication, institutionalization, therapy) for these individuals, which would give us some method for dealing with these diagnoses as a society, even the harshest gun-control laws in the country will not prevent these people from acting out in unjust and damaging ways, with or without guns. We may never know the exact diagnoses of the two recent shooters – it depends on what evidence is disclosed at trial – but hopefully the fact that a psychiatric disorder played a key role in the loss of so many lives will inspire us to seek reform and devise a more adequate system for dealing with mental disorders in the U.S.
I hope I’ve made the point that we must consider mental health reform in the same breath as gun control laws, especially as we respond to the recent tragedies stemming from guns in the hands of individuals suffering from mental illness. But what about us? The road to national mental health reform begins with all of us. Do your part to make sure those around you aren’t slipping through the cracks. If you see someone who looks visibly upset, stop and ask if you can help or if they want you to stand with them for a few minutes. If you know a friend going through a hard time, take the time to be with them and support them, even if it just means giving them a hug and telling them that you’re there for them.
I’m not suggesting that anyone you know will be the next mass shooter, but taking responsibility for the collective wellness of those around you is an important step toward safer communities. Never underestimate the power of a simple gesture of care toward a friend or even a complete stranger. If everyone did just that, chances are we’d live in a much safer world.
Let Emily know your ideas about the road to mental health reform at firstname.lastname@example.org.