Along with the rest of the world, my heart is absolutely breaking for the families of victims in Connecticut and Clackamas County right now. Especially as a mother of 2 young children, I can completely empathize with their pain and devastation, and I hope and pray for as much love and peace as possible to heal their wounds in this horrific time.
After I felt the initial shock and sadness, my mind immediately jumped to the question: “Why?” From what I have heard and read, most of you feel the same. Already people are trying to answer that question, and come up with solutions for how to prevent this from happening in the future, and I’m hearing words like “more security in the schools”, “more gun control”, and from my Christian friends “more Jesus”. I don’t want to knock any of these answers, or discount the feelings and experiences of my friends and their validity as possible solutions, but as soon as I heard that the shooter may have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and exhibited signs that many had noticed, I wondered why more people are not talking about the fact that this could be the real heart of the problem. And even those who are talking about it don’t seem to see it as a widely treatable solution, just a fact. I have heard experts talking about this on the radio, in particular a psychiatrist who interviewed Kip Kinkel after the Thurston High School shooting in 1988. The following is his history as taken from Wikipedia:
At his sentencing, the defense presented experts on mental health to show that the assailant was mentally ill. Jeffrey Hicks, the only psychologist who had treated Kinkel before the shootings, said that he was in satisfactory mental health. He had seen Kinkel for nine sessions, after which the boy’s parents terminated the therapy. On September 24, 1999, three days before jury selection was set to begin, Kinkel pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder, foregoing the possibility of being acquitted by reason of insanity. In November 1999, Kinkel was sentenced to 111 years in prison without the possibility of parole. At sentencing, Kinkel apologized to the court for the murder of his parents and the shooting spree. In June 2007, Kinkel sought a new trial. He said that his previous attorneys should have taken the case to trial and used the insanity defense. Two psychiatrists testified that Kinkel exhibited signs of paranoid schizophrenia at the time of the shooting. In August 2007, a Marion County judge denied him a new trial. Kinkel appealed, arguing among other things that he had had ineffective assistance of counsel during the trial proceedings. On January 12, 2011, the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court judgment, denying his motion for a new trial. Kinkel is now incarcerated at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Oregon. He received his GED while serving a portion of his life sentence at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon. On June 11, 2007, Kinkel, nearing his 25th birthday (maximum age to be held as a juvenile in Oregon), was transferred from the Oregon Youth Authority, MacLaren Correctional Facility, to the Oregon State Correctional Institution, Oregon Department of Corrections.
Now I’m going to get publicly personal about my own experience with mental illness, something I’ve never done before, out of shame and fear of judgement, but I believe now is the right time, if only to raise awareness about mental illness a tiny bit more, and hopefully start a spark that will possibly prevent a similarly tragic violent event in the future. After the birth of my first child in 2003, I experienced an extreme bout of postpartum mania, which culminated in a psychotic break 5 days after my son was born. Even though I was surrounded by family and friends during this time, nobody (myself included) recognized the signs of my increasing manic behavior, because none of us had EVER heard of it before. All I knew is that I felt extremely good, like I could do anything, and I was only sleeping about 1 hour a day for 5 days straight. Possibly trying to nurse every hour didn’t help, or moved it along more quickly, I don’t know, but after 5 days, my mind just couldn’t take it anymore. All of my sanity disappeared in a flash, and I thought I had entered a new plane of reality, where everything that was happening was pre-ordained. I was awakened to my destiny of ushering in the second coming of Christ; I was the new Mary, and my son was Jesus, come back to earth. Being raised as a Christian, in my newly insane state, all of this made perfect sense to me. Then I became sure that, now that Jesus had come back to earth, the world was going to end in the morning, that there was going to be a worldwide nuclear disaster, and that we were all going to heaven together. I was somewhat aware of my physical behavior during this time, but I had absolutely no control over it. I was in the bedroom nursing my son when the break happened. I started laughing, and I could hear my family and friends laughing in the other room along with me. Then I started screaming, and they finally knew something was wrong and rushed into the room. My Mom tried to take the baby from me, and I started screaming that she was trying to take Jesus from me. I squeezed him so tightly, I’m sure I could have killed him if she hadn’t gotten him away from me in time. I know that I was a danger, because I was vaguely aware of her quickly examining him in the next room and saying that he was OK. I also lost control of my bladder and was hallucinating all sorts of strange things. I had a heating pack in the room full of gel that I burst open with my bare hands and started marveling over how beautiful the color was on my fingers. During all of this, my wonderful, amazing, solid rock of a husband was trying to reason with me and calm me down. He was the only person I listened to, and I’m sure he prevented many more violent actions by me. My family also had the presence of mind to call the doctor right away, and rush me to the emergency room. On the way, I was feeling such strength and invulnerability that, among other things, I kicked the headrest up and dislodged it, I rolled down the window and yelled at passing cars, and talked about causing a wreck. When we got to the hospital, they took me to a secure room and tried to give me a sedative. I screamed that I didn’t want it, I thought it would effect the outcome of the nuclear holocaust, and I fought off the security guard that was trying to hold me down. They finally were able to give me the injection, and some anti-psychotics, and I eventually became calm. All of this is what I remember, and maybe some of it didn’t really happen… nobody wanted to discuss it afterwards. But I know that when I started coming to my senses, I was covered in urine and I had bruises on my arms from the guard trying to hold me down. As my husband started explaining what had happened, and I started to regain my sanity, I was devastated. It seemed like a horrible nightmare. I wanted it to be a nightmare, and I couldn’t believe that my mind had snapped so completely. I was so extremely incredibly lucky that I had been surrounded by family and friends at the time who knew what to do, and that the drugs they had given me worked so quickly. I shudder to think of what might have happened if I had been alone with my baby, or if I had been able to grab to a weapon at the time. I probably would have shot everyone, thinking I was sparing them from the coming nuclear holocaust and taking them to heaven more quickly.
I’m sorry if I’m disturbing anyone with these details, but I think it’s important to relate what kinds of things were going through my head, and how I had ABSOLUTELY no control over my actions. This, I realized for the first time in my life, is what mental illness is like. I had never understood it before. I had always thought that mentally ill people who did crazy things had some level of control over them. I had always thought that they were probably just depressed because they didn’t have enough faith, or prayer, or people helping them, etc. I had all of these things… but my brain chemistry had just stopped working right.
I spent the following 5 days in the mental hospital, being evaluated, having my medication adjusted, finding a psychiatrist to continue my treatment, starting to deal with the emotional trauma, missing my newborn son like crazy, and above all, learning to relate with and understand the other mentally ill people around me. Suddenly, they weren’t so scary any more. I had been there.
It took a full 2 years to recover from this event mentally, emotionally and spiritually, to really start trusting my brain again, although I have still tried to be aware of any weird emotional thoughts, and take them with a grain of salt if I can, or discuss them with caring family and friends if I can’t let them go on my own. My husband has also made sure I always get a decent amount of sleep. No more night feedings for either of my two babies, how lucky is that? Through psychiatric therapy, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, brought on by my postpartum chemical imbalance. Eventually I was able to quit the anti-psychotics, but I remain on a mood stabilizer that has kept me emotionally stable to this day, without side effects. I was in denial that I had a mental illness for a long time, and I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I still don’t. And I wish I didn’t have to take medication for it. This is common for many mentally ill patients. They don’t think they need medication, or they are ashamed of taking it. But honestly, what if someone felt like this about Diabetes, and refused to take their medication for it? It really shouldn’t be any different.
So, with this experience underneath my belt, and with the history of past shootings and the effect that mental illness had on them, combined with the knowledge that the young shooter from yesterday had also experienced a mental illness, I’m convinced that this, in most cases, is what causes people to behave in such a horribly violent way. I count myself lucky that I merely experienced a brief manic psychotic break that was treated quickly. There are many others who have lived for years with severe depression, personality disorders, paranoid schizophrenia, and other types of psychosis. It’s not their fault. They are not evil, sinful, or just acting out of anger. They are hurting, sick, misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated medically.
It’s my strong belief that we desperately need more education, awareness and research about mental illness in this country. We need to stop just putting a bandaid on the few who act out so violently after the fact by sending them to prison. We need to prevent it more in the first place with proper treatment and medication, not just gun control and tighter security. Even those things are not always enough, and they don’t help the mentally ill person at all. The psychiatrist who was talking yesterday on the radio about his conversations with Kip Kinkel related that he had, for years previous to the attack, heard voices in his head telling him to kill people, but he had never told anyone for fear that they would think he was crazy. And the mere fact that Adam Lanza had been diagnosed with a mental illness at all makes me wonder why he wasn’t given more effective treatment before it reached this severe consequence. What can we do to make it less shameful for people to talk about their “crazy” thoughts and feelings with someone? What can we do to make sure people are more aware of these diseases; how to recognize the signs and how to help them? I don’t remember ever having a health class about mental illness in school, not until I took an elective psychology course in college, and that only covered basic theory. What if all of the schools taught even just one mental health class, say in middle school (when everyone starts to feel abnormal and explore their feelings) educating them on the different types of mental illness, as well as telling them some of the signs, in a very gentle way, so they can have more awareness about them. What if they were told that if they started having thoughts about harming themselves or others, or even manic thoughts like feeling invincible and they didn’t need to sleep, that it’s OK, they are not necessarily evil or sinful thoughts, that sometimes our brain chemistry can get unbalanced, our minds can get sick, and just like having a physical illness, it’s OK to tell a parent, teacher, or doctor, and ask for help. What if these young violent boys had just had one single class like that, and it had made a difference? Or in my case, I went to so many doctors appointments and birthing classes when I was pregnant with my son. What if just one of these appointments or classes talked about postpartum mental illness, and how to recognize the signs? They talked enough about everything else that could go wrong physically, for sure. What if my family and I had been given this awareness, and even prevented my traumatic psychotic break?
Even doctors and psychiatrists don’t have all of the answers. My doctor didn’t even recognize the signs of mania when I came in for my 5 day checkup, even though I told her how abnormally great I was feeling and how I wasn’t getting any sleep. I can guarantee that she takes these admissions from her patients more seriously now. There is some research being done, and the medical profession is learning more all the time about mental illness, but it seems like there should be more widespread education about it, in schools and doctor’s offices. There should be just as much research and education about medication and therapy for mental illness as there is for other diseases. People need to finally understand and accept, without fear or shame, that it’s just as much a disease as any other, and should perhaps be taken even more seriously, since it can be far more dangerous. It can take the life of not only the patient, but many people around them as well.