It really frustrated me to read that the mass shooting in Texas has been written off quickly by some in our government as a mental health issue. I’ve thought about this a lot in the last day, and I suppose that someone who is abusive to their own family may well have issues that stem from trauma and could be treated with some of the same techniques we use with other neurological issues. One of my psychiatrists said to me once that he wished that all of the different branches of psychiatry could be rolled into the department of Neurology: they’re all things that are happening in the physical brain, and then people would start to understand that mental illness is not some other thing, completely unlike other illnesses.
But I’ve fought hard to undermine this idea that people who are mentally ill are violent. I work on a university campus, and I see the knee-jerk reactions of fear of people whose behavior is a certain distance away from the norm. If someone does something repetitively or loudly or “weirdly” then we tend to get scared that they will escalate to violence. Many studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more likely than others to commit violent acts, unless we include suicide, but they are more likely to be the subjects of violence. I’ve spent some time reading, and it seems that the abuse and mental illness connection tends to be that abusers tend to favor the mentally ill as partners. But this idea that mass shootings and mental illness go together makes it more likely that we’ll see more of these cases where there’s quick violence against mentally ill people who seem like they might possibly pose a threat.
I’ve lived with my older son for more than twenty years, for example, and though I recognize from other people’s reactions that he’s kind of odd (my younger son and I have noted that we’re so used to him that we don’t usually notice the odd bits), and he’s had many rages and made violent threats, he’s only hit me one time, and he didn’t hurt me. He hit his brother more times, but then again, Pete hit him too. They came to a mutual détente a few years ago when they realized that they’d gotten big enough to seriously injure each other.
He is very afraid that something will happen and he’ll wind up in jail, because he understands that if he’s in jail, he may or may not have access to his medications. We had this talk with his psychiatrist when I was considering risking arrest in some of the protests last year, and Martin wanted to come with me. His psychiatrist said that it probably wasn’t a good idea for him, based on his experience with other patients who’d been in jail for minor offenses. Not being able to stand up for his beliefs to the point of arrest really depressed Martin for some time, though we assured him that he has other gifts.
He’s also afraid, though, of people’s perceptions of his illness. Perhaps you’ve read about Claude Steele’s theory of stereotype threat, a person’s sense on entering a situation that a stereotype about them is already in play and working against them. My sense, based on a sample of me and my son, is that this process is at work on people with mental illness as well as other groups. Martin comes into a room and feels that people can see that he has bipolar. He’s been bullied in the past, and even his friends have called out his tics so that he’s hyper-conscious of what some of his behaviors look like to other people.
It’s hard not to feel like you have control over the way that people perceive you. I think that most of us have less control than we’d like to imagine that we do. My hand tremors certainly make it much more difficult to cultivate that suave air I’d like to have (think Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam”), when he attempts to gesture gracefully and flings his vinyl record out of its jacket and across the room). Someone whose entire body regularly takes them on a ride involving several nights without sleep certainly loses that façade even worse than I do.