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.