Saturday, December 15, 2012

Blaming Mental Illness for Tragedy Harms Children with Mental Illness

Sadly we have had another tragic shooting in America. This time in Connecticut twenty young children and six adults were killed. There are no words for how horrible this is. The sadness of this event is felt by everyone in our country and I can only imagine how their families and the community of Newton, Connecticut are feeling right now. My heart goes out to them and I pray that they feel the support and love of our nation with them.

Always the first question after an event like this is "Why did this happen?," and rightly so. We really want make sense of things, to feel like we have some control again so we can have a bit of stability back. It is always very hard for me though to read dozens of comments on Facebook saying: "if only we had a better mental health care system things like this would not happen." Or news articles which say the motive for the shooting is a "mystery" but then adds that the brother of the shooter says the shooter "has a history of mental illness."

As blogger Kate Donovan writes, when you blame mental illness for such an event, this is what you are saying:
"Here is a terrible thing. The only thing that could possibly cause someone to do such a terrible, tragic thing is to have This Disorder. Because only people with This Disorder could be so dangerous/awful/scary."

This assumption of mental illness is extremely detrimental to people with mental illness, but especially so to children with mental illness. I have had mental illness since I was a child and this belief that only people with mental illness do bad things is extremely terrifying.

There has been a lot of great advice of how to talk about this shooting with your children because even kids who live no where near Connecticut can be traumatized by just hearing about the shooting on the news. Now just imagine if you are a child with mental illness and you hear over and over again that only "crazy" or "mentally ill" people do things like this. Some parents, in order to explain why this happened, tell their children that the shooter "had a sickness in his brain." Then as a child you hear other kids in school saying that people who are "sick in the head" do things like this.

You learn at a young age that you are to be feared, not trusted, and you are a danger to society. You learn that it does not matter if you have a good heart, save every stray puppy in the neighborhood, and care deeply about other people. If your brain is not right you could end up just like this person who did something horrific. There really is no way to describe the fear you feel as a child hearing everyone around you put you into the same category as a killer. I can attest to the fact that it does traumatize you for life, leaving you with a feeling that you must be a bad person and just don't know it. It means every time an event like this happens you are thrown into a terrible state of panic where for days or weeks you can barely function and never sleep.

UPDATE: After I posted this originally, Liza Long's blog post, "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" went viral. I have a response to that and how it might cause people to link mental illness to violence but I wanted to add to this post how I feel Long's post might affect children. 

I hear that Long was writing from a raw emotional place and so her post was very honest. I did feel that comparing her child, "Michael" to Adam Lanza would be extremely devastating to him if and when he reads the article. Also, I know that any child who hears about the post and who has mental illness, especially with any violent tendencies or thoughts (which may never turn into violent acts), may fear that they will be the next Adam Lanza. Hearing a mother liken her mentally ill child to a mass murderer could easily scare kids into wondering "Am I Adam Lanza?" 

(Read more about the "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" debate here.)
So, I ask you to PLEASE think before you speak. Don't throw mental illness out as the reason for an event like this. Think of the message you are sending to the nearly 4 million kids in America who have mental illness. We don't need to add extra trauma to a nation of children and adults who are scared and hurting.

UPDATE: Here is another great article on this subject: The Pain of Being Linked By Asperger Dx to a Mass Shooter.


Rev. Katie


  1. Thank you Katie-- we were just having this discussion last night . Your words are perfect. Can I repost?

    1. Always feel free to repost. Thank you for doing so. I thought there might be other parents and kids having this same discussion. :-)

  2. In light of what you wrote here Katie you might want to share your concerns with UUA President Peter Morales about the concluding paragraph of his official statement about the Connecticut school massacre.

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  4. Kate, thank you for your website.

    I have bipolar II disorder and I have no problem with the statement that people who commit mass murder are mentally ill. To me, it is safe to say that a mentally healthy person does not commit mass murder. Hopefully, the Sandy Hook tragedy will spur us to designate more resources toward treating mental illness so that no one ever need suffer as a result of these illnesses going untreated.

    As far as the lesson to children goes, I have young relatives with mental illness. To them, and to any child with a mental illness, my advice is to relentlessly pursue treatment that works for you, including adopting a healthy lifestyle, in order to optimize your chances of living the best life you can live.

    I don't think it helps our children or society for us to ignore the consequences to the individual and society for allowing mental illness to go untreated. If the horrific Sandy Hook tragedy indeed resulted from untreated mental illness, it represents the worse of these consequences. By discussing this in an age-appropriate way with our children, we can help them understand why actively trying to improve their own mental health is imperative, and why advocating for the improvement of mental health care for all is a good fight to fight.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree, especially with your last paragraph. The hard thing about advocating not blaming everything bad on mental illness is that I don't want to loose sight of the fact that yes, sometimes mental illness is involved and we do need better mental health care. I wish more people had a more well rounded understanding of mental illness as you do here.

      I wish when we used the term mental illness that it was not every mental illness lumped into the same category. It leads some people who do not fully understand mental illness to assume all people with mental illness are violent.

  5. I had a nervous breakdown five years ago and am now bipolar. I feel quite a stab to the heart everytime I see people on the Yahoo Message Boards, both Democrat and Republican, agreeing that everybody should be screened for mental illnesses and be locked up. I wonder what century this is. I have never felt any urge to harm another human being.

    Yet the new discourse on the matter makes me wonder if we could end up back in a time where people like myself are labelled as 'lunatics' and locked up in homes where sadistic non-lunatics can poke sticks at inmates who have committed no crime purely for their own twisted entertainment.

    There are three types of people that are still acceptable to hate. Women (unless they are 'legitimately raped'), atheists, and persons with mental illnesses are all fair game. Blacks, gays, and even Muslims are rarely subjected to this kind of open hatred anymore.

  6. I must say, however, that I am not Adam Lanza's mother. Though I am neither a woman nor a mother, I do have two nephews. But I have never taken them to a shooting range. In fact I don't even let them play with toy guns because I simply do not believe that anything representative of a gun is a toy. So I cannot say that I identify with her in any way.