Mental Illness, Mass Violence, And A Brick Wall

I’ve written about my brother Daniel previously here and here. Both of those posts are very much worth reading to understand our family’s story.

Here in the US it seems we are dealing with mass shootings on a regular basis now. It may or may not be due to an increase in the actual number of shootings, but for whatever reason we are becoming more aware of and focused on the problem. Some people blame misogyny, others blame gun laws, and still others place the blame on the media for sensationalizing the gunmen. Many (if not most) of us are at a complete loss as to what to do to address – and hopefully prevent – more violence.

By Francois Polito (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Francois Polito (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have a solution to the problem, unfortunately. I wish I did! But I hear people asking why these things happen and I do have some insight to offer in that regard – on the individuals who are violent, mentally ill, and left completely unchecked due to enormous flaws in our legal and mental health systems.

First, let me make a few things clear:

The diagnosis of a mental illness should not be a grounds for denying a person rights by itself.

The vast majority of us living with mental illness are not violent and present no danger to those around us.

The fact that a person suffers from a mental illness does not mean that he/she cannot make good decisions.

With that said, there are those out there that are both violent and mentally ill – and they are not receiving sufficient treatment. Further, there is no recourse for those around them – there is only brick wall after brick wall standing in the way of getting their loved ones help. Family and friends have to sit and watch while the illness continues to eat away at everything that was good about the person.

After each shooting, we are lambasted with details about the shooters and their families. In most of these cases, so many aspects are eerily familiar to me. The recent shooting near Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, which was mostly blamed on misogyny, struck a huge chord with me – the big similarity being that my brother has made many of the same statements as Rodger regarding women. Like the shooter, my brother believes that those around him are to blame for his lot in life. If he were to go on a murderous rampage that was aimed at women, a person might say that his misogyny was at the heart of it and they wouldn’t be completely off-base.

But, here is the thing – over the years as Daniel’s illness has gotten progressively worse, he has also made horrible, violent statements about actors, people of color, doctors – even babies. There is no guessing who his derision will be aimed at next. Any violent acts he commits could happen to occur while he is focused on any of these groups of people. This is how his mental illness works.

Remember: not all mental illness works that way and most who suffer from mental illness (or even the specific illness my brother suffers from) are NOT violent. Individuals are different and that means that the ways in which mental illness manifests in each person will be different, even if they have the same diagnosis.

My brother has been diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and, in his case, he exhibits violent tendencies when he is at a low point (despite the fact that aggression is not listed as a symptom for the disorder – for him, it IS a symptom that his illness is flaring big time). His understanding of his life story differs from the generally accepted reality. His understanding of events and people differs from reality. His understanding of language and the meaning of words differs from what is agreed-upon by society. He lives in an alternate reality, one that is not truly representative of what is actually going on around him.

His behavior is not the result of societal attitudes – his behavior is due to the way his brain processes information. Because of this, he latches onto things that he hears and sees around him that fit into his own twisted view of the world – many of those things happen to deal with racism, sexism, conspiracies, etc. – anything having to do with extreme displays of emotion or radical ideas. If something doesn’t fit into his ideas about the world, he will either dismiss it completely or reframe it to fit into his own way of thinking.

Unlike my brother, most of these shooters haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from mental illness, does it? In the case of Elliot Rodger, he had seen several therapists and his parents had called the police because they were concerned about his behavior. Having no prior knowledge of the weapons he had stored in his home or his many internet rants (which could have provided important information about his mental state), the police walked away when Rodger assured them that he wasn’t going to do anything violent.

We ask why we didn’t this coming, but even if we did – what could be done about it?

I can’t tell you how many specialists my brother has seen over the years who never diagnosed him with Schizoaffective Disorder. (He has diagnosed with ADD at one point as a child, which was clearly a drop-in-the-bucket of what was really going on.) Many of us who suffer with mental illness can tell you that RARELY does anyone hand over a piece of paper with a diagnosis on it, even if they are more than willing to write a prescription to treat symptoms – and it’s extremely common to be mis- or under-diagnosed. Each type of mental illness can manifest in so many different ways and symptoms can change drastically over time. In my brother’s case, the longer he goes untreated, the more his disease seems to progress and take him further from reality.

The presence of mental illness is one piece of the puzzle, but we have to ask whether there are adequate systems in place to address violent mental illness and prevent that violence from being directed outwardly and at the public.

Due to my family’s experience (and the stories of others who have shared their own struggles to get help for ill family members) I can say with 100% confidence that NO, our system is absolutely NOT set up to handle these issues in any sort of helpful manner. And there is very little that is being done about that fact, despite the growing concern over occurrences of public acts of mass violence.

My brother has talked again and again about inflicting violence on others – family, strangers, whatever. He has described in detail what he would do in an attempt to get away with it, stating that he would leave various body parts of his victims in random, separate trash cans. He has spoken positively of concentration camps. He is paranoid, delusional, and has hallucinations. He has made threats directly toward people, destroyed property, and, most recently, he has physically assaulted members of my family. He has published his rants all over the internet – just as Elliot Rodger did, and countless other perpetrators before him – and our family’s attempts to get help for him, to prevent his aggression from escalating violently and publicly, have gone nowhere.

The police have been called many times over the last 6 years or so, but only the most recent incident led to any criminal action – when he punched my mother in the eye, he was finally arrested. My mother moved to an undisclosed location and got an order of protection against her only son, as much as that killed her to do it. My brother was quickly released from jail and assigned a court date. In lieu of more jail time and felony charges, the court ordered him to participate in a “mental health program,” a program that doesn’t require that he take medication, be supervised by anyone, or be admitted for in-patient care. He simply has to attend counseling.

So, to recap, we are talking about an adult male with a diagnosed mental illness that he refuses to treat (or even acknowledge), numerous violent outbursts that have required police intervention, jail time, and restraining orders, plus detailed plans for other acts of violence against the public. Is counseling going to cut it?

My brother can easily obtain a gun or guns LEGALLY. After all, he has no felonies on his record and has never been held as an in-patient at a mental facility (my mother tried to have him admitted – they wouldn’t take him because they didn’t have enough beds, he didn’t appear out of control, and he is over 18 and didn’t want to be admitted) – which in California is grounds for denying the purchase of a gun. Apparently his therapist has insufficient evidence to show he is a threat toward anyone – his sense of self-preservation is still strong and he tends to not mention his violent thoughts to those with authority. My mother has done everything she could think of to give the therapist, the police, and the court the information they need to address my brother’s problems, but there is only so much she can do while also keeping herself safe from him.

My family members and I can tell you that my brother wouldn’t think twice about going on a shooting spree. He doesn’t really understand the emotions of others, and in fact seems to enjoy seeing emotions played out in extreme ways. It clearly doesn’t matter what his family members say, though – we’ve exhausted the system.

At this point it seems that his case is a lost cause and he is a ticking time bomb. And when it goes off, the police and even his therapists will probably say there was no warning or that the evidence was insufficient to do anything to prevent his acts of violence.

But clearly there is evidence…there is just no solution to this glaring problem.

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Comments

  1. this is such a powerful piece and huffington post worthy. you should submit it to them!!

  2. you should totally do it: pitch the blog post here:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/contact/

  3. Under:
    Send us a blog-pitch

    Contact us to pitch an idea for a blog post to the HuffPost Blog Team

  4. definitely put the entire text of your blog in that box if you can… :)

  5. This insight is what we all need to read. Thank YOU for being the voice.

  6. I’m glad you wrote and published this piece. This is the reality of today’s mental health system and the inner workings of our society (if you ask me). We don’t fully recognize and acknowledge mental health as an issue, there is terrible, misguided, and misinformed stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness specifically. Without a change in both of these things, as a society we will continue to attempt to “mask” the situation and point fingers at symptoms, instead of causes (like the lack of proper treatment, etc.).

    And, yes, please do pitch to HP. I’d love to see your article out there for more of the world to see! :)

  7. Cathy Kincaid says:

    I will be reading this at the next meeting of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute’s Board of Directors of which I am a member, Patient Advocacy. the problem cannot be addressed and resolved until it is stated and acknowlededged, and you have done it so well that this must be shared wherever possible and especially among those who are actively involved in mental health care. Thank you so much for putting what I have always believed in print.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting and sharing this at your BOD meeting! I’m so happy to hear that my experience can be shared where it might make a difference!

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