Mental Illness and the Writer

Mary Ellen Latela @LatelaMary

This is the first in a series of essays about our relationship with mental illness: about writing a character who struggles with a chronic mental illness, about understanding that diagnosis is complicated, individualized, and sometimes incorrect.:

PART ONE The Rush to Label “Mental Illness”

When there is a massive explosion in a land far away and hundreds of people die, we want to attribute the tragedy to individuals or groups that are “evil,” “bad,” “warped.” We do not label the perpetrators as possibly suffering from obsessions, delusions, or manic-depression.

When a teenager opens fire on a family after breaking up with a girlfriend, we do not judge him or her of committing an evil act or making a horrid decision. We openly wonder whether the perpetrator had a mental illness and whether that was the underlying cause of the tragedy.

Why the difference?

On December 14, 2012, twenty six people, twenty of them children ages six and seven  were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This tragedy shook us to the core. The shooter was a twenty-year old young man with a huge arsenal of weapons. He killed himself after shooting the others.

Initially, cries for gun-control reforms were loud and insistent, but no federal laws have been enacted to address issues like background checks and waiting periods. We as a society have done nothing to prevent this kind of loss from occurring in our schools again. Since that massacre, there have been other shootings – at schools, at big suburban malls. Multiple deaths and a shooter who is reclusive are often linked.

I watched the TV report unfolding on the day of the Newtown loss. I was distressed to see reporters approaching little children, whose brave teachers and aides were leading them from the scene, and asking them to describe what happened and whether they were afraid.

Then the guessing began. What was wrong with the perpetrator? What was wrong with his family? Was his mother to blame? Is it possible for a “good kid” to go on a rampage? Common knowledge – which is not the same as scientific certainty – is that this is not likely, unless  there is a mental impediment, a “mental illness.” Diagnosing a person who in life exhibited signs of mental illness is imperfect and incomplete. However, psychologists, social workers, pastors, who never met the young man flock to panels and freely offer their opinions. Parents of the lost children – in their grief and loss – express their near-certainty that something was very wrong with perpetrator.

Others – with only the nonprofessional’s store of information from books or from the internet, attempt to form a kind of diagnosis, by matching a list of symptoms with an illness. Perhaps the need for some kind of reasonable explanation – now – is favored over logic. Alternatively, perhaps, having some plausible explanation might cause us to feel less threatened by the rampant violence in society.

This “one size fits all” approach is out of line. Persons with mental illness are not all the same. Persons with similar clinical diagnoses of depression, manic-depression, sociopaths, and psychopaths – remain individuals. The label does not help us, And the nasty side effect is the branding of anyone who lives with and struggles with chronic mental illness as unfit for a place in day-to day life.

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