Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 20, 2013

Shed the stigma of mental illness

— — Aaron Alexis makes us scared of mental illness. He epitomizes the “whacko with the weapon.” He defines the dangerous “crazy,” the person who “went postal.”     Yes, we are right to fear that extreme exhibition of mental illness, which we’ve seen time and time again at the hands of “deranged” gunmen. We are justified in being angry at Alexis. But we also need to make note that he tried to get help before he became a murderous “madman.”

He complained about a stranger threatening him at the airport, said he heard voices coming through the wall, ceiling and floor where he was working at the U.S. Naval Yard and claimed microwaves were being used to send vibrations into his hotel room and his body while he tried to sleep. He reported this to police. He sought help at the Veterans Administration hospital. And this was years after shooting up the tires on the car of construction workers in his neighborhood during what he called an “anger-fueled blackout” and “accidentally” firing his gun while cleaning it into a neighbor’s upstairs apartment.

And, yet, he was allowed to serve in the Navy while racking up several disciplinary issues, was handed an honorable discharge despite those issues because he was never convicted of a crime, kept his security clearance which enabled him to work for a military contractor, and, finally, Saturday he purchased a Remington 870 shotgun and 24 shells, a “riot gun,” and carried it Monday morning into a military facility in our nation’s capital.

Aaron Alexis tried to tell someone that something was wrong. Aaron Alexis was apparently scared of whatever was going on in his head and outside of his head. But the right people didn’t pay attention.

We don’t need to be scared of mental illness. We need to be scared of how we are ignoring, misdiagnosing and mistreating it. We need to be scared that we don’t have a more streamlined system that waves red flags when someone with a disturbing violent or mental health history applies for positions in the military, related industries or law enforcement. We need to be scared of our ignorance, arrogance and avoidance of emotional wellness and mental illness.

Aaron Alexis probably looked and acted normally most of the time. People with mental illness don’t always walk around with a big hazard sign flashing over their heads. But there were moments when it was blazing and people failed to act.

When will we stop looking the other way when we know someone is behaving bizarrely? When will we start treating mental illness with the attention we give high blood pressure or a broken ankle? When will we shed the shame and stop acting as if emotional and mental problems are something to be embarrassed about rather than confront and conquer.

My heart aches for those lost, those suffering injuries and trauma, and for the families of all involved. They were good folks just eating their breakfast and doing their jobs and they were taken in a moment by the mix of untreated mental illness, blind rage and firepower. 

Measures are being taken to shore up our defenses against this kind of domestic assault. Officials are already reviewing security clearance policies and the physical security and access to Defense Department installations around the world.

But what about reviewing our personal prejudice against mental illness? We probably all encounter some degree of mental illness at work, school, the gym, and home — maybe even in the mirror. But we pull the mask over our face and refuse to be open about the depression, anxiety, addiction or personality disorder we deal with every day. So then mental illness looks like Aaron Alexis, rather than the rest of us.

If we stamp out the stigma attached to mental health issues, shed the shame and eliminate the fear, then we open the door for people to speak freely about what they are feeling and thinking. Then we enable individuals to seek help, get treatment and, hopefully, overcome their issue before it becomes extreme, scary and deadly.

Mental illness doesn’t only look like Aaron Alexis. It looks like the attractive 50-year-old woman who wakes up daily with anxiety. It looks like the college student who struggles with an eating disorder. It looks like the successful banker who battles depression. It looks like the brave veteran suffering from PTSD and fighting suicidal ideation.  

It’s become part of the protocol for some health care providers, while taking patient histories, to question the patient about their emotional well-being. If schools and pediatricians do vision, hearing and scoliosis screenings, why shouldn’t they also do a mental health screening? Mental and emotional health is as important to the individual as physical health.

It’s also painfully clear that mental and emotional health isn’t just an individual health risk but, untreated, it is a risk to our society as a whole. One person’s mental health can harm hundreds. Let’s seek ways to help keep one another safe.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.

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