Mental Illness in Virginia

One of the increasingly uttered comments about the horrifying events at Virginia Tech runs something like this:

We were never told he was mentally ill. He should have been kept off campus. He should have been isolated from the rest of us. We should have been warned that he was disturbed.

Now it is true that someone so terribly dangerous should have been treated, that such horrors should be prevented, especially in a case like this wherein warnings were made and accepted years earlier.

On the other hand, I am extremely concerned about the presuppositions of such comments, and about the potential upshots of such thinking to countless people disabled by mental illness–people who will be tarred by such overly-broad brush strokes.

Mental illness is very common. And it is only very recently being almost accepted as a normal part of normal people’s lives, just like other physical ailments such as nearsightedness, acne, asthma, and severe allergies.

But such comments betray a fear of the mentally ill, and a sweeping generalization over all mental illness as if those suffering from it were all raving lunatics or violent offenders just waiting to erupt into campus mayhem. Indeed, such comments betray fears reminiscent of those had by many in the early 90s about those infected with AIDS.

Such people should be isolated; we should be told that person A has been diagnosed as mentally ill!

No, no they shouldn’t; no you shouldn’t.

I know many with mental illness: a popular and energetic family man and preacher who suffers from paranoia, a successful and vivacious wife and businesswoman who manages her manic-depression with much success, a funny and brilliant scholar who handles his Asperger’s such that nobody realizes it’s even there. You wouldn’t know just by looking at them. People who manage their mental illness are usually brilliant actors, keeping the problem from others. And why do they do so?

Quite simply, because of the sentiments expressed by those grasping for easy solutions in situations that have none. Quite simply, society is terrified of mental illness, and if these wonderful people were ‘exposed’ such that their disabilities were publicized, they would be ostracized, and their successful and happy lives would be not only compromised, but most probably destroyed.

No, and again I say no we should not ever require that people’s private medical and psychological records be publicized such that they are forbidden to attend public universities because others are scared.

Mental illness is a disability, and the ADA guarantees federal protection to those with disabilities, to those suffering yet capable, hindered in some parts of their lives, yet able to function, overcome, and even thrive in academics, business, and the rest of the world without anyone needing to know their inner struggles.

The ADA ensures that people should not be prejudiced against because of disability, just like other legal codes ensure people should not be prejudiced against because of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.

That almost three dozen people were murdered by a mentally disturbed man is tragic. That it might have been stopped by different legal permissions under a different legal code is likely. That the answer is to publicize psychological files is simply false.

If such publicization were to occur, two outcomes would obtain, neither of which would be the aversion of violent outbursts. First, normal people who manage their illnesses would be destroyed for no reason other than irrational, prejudicial fear. Second, those who truly should be treated with kid gloves would find their delusions affirmed, and they would be encouraged thereby to act out.

Campus shooters, anthrax mailers, serial rapists, suicide bombers, serial killers, and unibombers all tend to believe that they are outcasts from a corrupt and brutal world. They set themselves on a pedestal, looking down upon and judging a world that judges them. And if we publicize their illnesses with an eye to ostracization (though we’ll call it ‘self protection’ or the ‘preservation of society’), how have we corrected their false beliefs? Indeed, we have only given them justification for their delusions.

No, the solution is not in making out a list of those who have mental illnesses (a list reminiscent of those of sexual predators and child abusers, with whom the majority of the mentally ill have as little in common as you do). If you simply must know, then assume everyone you know has a mental illness. You’ll be wrong, but not by much. (And of course, you’re already wrong, thinking you don’t know anybody with one, so what’s the difference?) And if you change your thinking to consider this possibility, you might just become more compassionate and understanding of the struggles perfectly normal people who have mental illness work through daily.

And this response, that of compassion and a deliberate kindness, is the answer to the violent outbursts. We need not to ostracize or isolate those with mental illness, those who frighten us; rather, Jesus said to love those who spitefully use us, those who hate us, our enemies. People who feel detached from the world are the dangerous ones, so the answer, the remedy to the danger, is to reattach them to the world, to give them reasons to love the world they’re in, to show them what kindness and compassion is.

Instead of making public who has mental illnesses so that we can flee from them, lest we somehow ‘catch’ their illness, let us become a contagion ourselves, let us contaminate the world with grace, the grace whereby we ourselves have been healed and accepted, despite our own desperate ‘mental’ illness, sin.


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