Mental Illness and Violence: Why Does a Newtown or Aurora Happen?

With the recent discussion about mental illness that has surrounding the tragedies in Newtown and Aurora, it’s important for people to understand that those who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.  Too often the mentally ill are perceived as violent. They are feared, stigmatized, and discriminated against. They are avoided, shunned, and are unable find employment.  They become isolated and self-esteem plummets. But even worse, this marginalization affects the availability of treatment.  If Adam Lanza or James Holmes had had access to care these shootings would not have occurred (The fact that lethal weapons were readily at hand certainly made things worse.)

But I feel encouraged by some of the discussion taking place about our mental health care system, one that is clearly broken.  When mental institutions were closed back in the 60s there was agreement that comprehensive community mental health care services would be developed.  That never happened because funding was never set aside for that purpose.  As a result our emergency rooms, the criminal justice system, and families are left to shoulder the burden when people are in crisis.

It’s difficult if not impossible for families to find help for their loved ones.  Unless a person is considered dangerous to themselves or others, the system simply does not respond.  As a result prisons have become our de facto psychiatric hospitals. The mentally ill fill our jails and account for a high percentage of our homeless population.  And sometimes an Aurora or Newtown occurs. Then we wonder how it could have happened.   It’s a tragedy for all the victims.  And let there be no doubt that the Adam Lanzas and James Holmes are among them.

Let’s hope that things will change as a result of these recent events.  That our citizens will rise to the occasion and demand change and that government will support those changes.  There is no cure for mental illness, but with treatment recovery is possible.  Those with mental illness can and do live fulfilled lives as contributing members of their communities.

I welcome your comments.


Mental Illness and Violence: Why Does a Newtown or Aurora Happen? — 4 Comments

  1. Beautifully said, Kathy. At last we are speaking about the real issue in these mass shootings, which is our mental health system (or lack of it).

    I would also like to add that each of these killers was on some kind of psychotropic drug. When we stop putting our children on drugs we might see an end to these miserable and damaged souls doing such harm to the world.

  2. Thanks for responding Bonnie. You’re right. The mental health care system is underfunded, uncoordinated—the term “system” a misnomer. As a result, our emergency rooms, the criminal justice system, and families have been left to shoulder the burden of responding to people in crisis. That must change.

    In terms of your point about medications, I feel that they are a vital elements in treatment for many who have severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and PTSD. (I’m speaking of adults here as I know little about children and drug treatment.)Lithium has been a god send for many with bipolar disorder and anti-psychotics have played an important role in helping people come back from psychosis.

    Those with mental illness can and do recover with good support systems, including a team of caring professionals who put decision making in the hands of their clients. The other important piece is an understanding and supportive family who are advocate for those they love.

  3. Well said Kathy!

    If something isn’t done to improve our mental health system there will only be more unfortunate situations. Society as a whole needs to be educated on the effects that mental health has on everyone. and that it is truly a disease. The effects are far reaching and long lasting and support and resources for families need to be provided.

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