My Mad Word by Imei Hsu, RN, LMHC, Artist
It’s a Friday morning, and I am sitting at my computer, mind humming along at 500mph, yet I feel paralyzed. I typically like to write about subjects I feel well-versed in, and murder isn’t one of them. Yesterday, I convinced myself I am in the perfect position to write about the shooting in Seattle that took place on Wednesday May 30 2012 which claimed the lives of
six seven people, including two musicians known to the tight community of performance artists among whom I rub shoulders. But the reality of my position as a therapist is really no different than the shock and loss that seems palpable among 600,000 who were alerted that a shooter had claimed the lives of innocent people and then turned the gun on himself. Perhaps the only difference is how the Internet has helped elucidate a community’s concerns and fear not just about the increase in violence but about mental healthcare in our state in our mad, mad world.
What Goes Wrong
This morning, I saw this tweet on my feed:
@Kirotvsouth: Mason sheriff confirms murder suicide in Potlatch near Shelton.
Woman shot her boyfriend then herself. She was having mental health issues.
Whether it is a father who kills his two boys and himself after his wife disappears the previous year, a fatal cafe shooting by a man known by his family to have “issues”, or a murder suicide, mental health plays a significant role in every scenario gone horrifically wrong. It is not normal to pick up a gun and shoot someone. It takes a significant break or disruption in the way a person attaches or doesn’t attach to others to do harm to one’s self or others. A simplistic way to describe what happens when people “lose it” is the normal and appropriate controls people learn to deal with shame, anger, loss, and conflict are not readily accessed by the person who picks up a gun to shoot someone else (note: I am not describing those who use a gun in self-defense, as there are other processes in place). Normal logic is suppressed. We describe a killer as “cold blooded” because pictures and video often show the observable lack of normal affect.
Again, this description is just a glimpse into the “how” of what goes wrong when we say someone is mentally ill and harmed himself and/or others. If you want a more in-depth article, there are a ton of books on serial killers. Strangely, there is much less material about the person who kills once, such as the person in dispute with a former lover. We seem to understand these tragedies plainly: it was an “eye for an eye”, or an act of revenge. While the story is still being investigated, it would not be surprising that the Cafe Racer shooting was sparked from the suspect’s previous alleged interactions with people at the Cafe. Something didn’t happen for him, and his own mental health strategies were not in place for him to reign in his violent reaction. My guess is that the suspect had a history of failed personal relationships and disputes with dozens of others. The cost: seven lives tragically lost.
Based on interviews of the family of the recent Seattle shooter at Cafe Racer, the suspect was known to have significant mental health issues, and that he refused treatment for his illness. If he had been forcibly placed in mental health treatment, Ian Stawicki would not have been issued a permit to own a gun. Yet that is no guarantee that Mr. Stawicki wouldn’t have found a multitude of other ways to gain possession of a firearm if he wanted one. But the last time I checked, guns don’t get fired by themselves; they are fired in the hands of people who pull the trigger. As much as the City of Seattle may choose to focus their response to this shooting on gun control and trained police officers, the Internet is churning with phrases indicating concern over mental illness. What went wrong in his head? How can we prevent more senseless killing?
Mental Health is More Than A Pill
Treatment for mental health is more than a pill prescribed for “crazy” people. Mental health treatment is something you and I do everyday in the ways we learn to care for ourselves. It begins with proper nutrition, rest, community and socializing, and talking about and caring for our challenges and feelings. Yes, some people have what has been referred on Social Media as “faulty wiring” and “f*cked up thinking”, and they often do need medications to help them function more normally. Yet, a psychotropic medication regime is only one aspect of mental healthcare. The power of community and environment of healing is another.
Here’s where you come in the picture. You’re reading this blogpost, and maybe you’ve been wondering what could have been done for a man like Stawicki before he picked up a gun and killed people. Maybe nothing would have prevented it; that is a possibility. And maybe there are a hundred little things we do every day that make a difference. What are these actions? This is where the discussion begins.
I do not have an answer. I have a contribution to the discussion, and I have my grief for the friends and families who lost loved ones this week in a mad act. What I do know is that answer is not found in a simple formula, such as more medication plus increasing state funding for the wards of mental health hospitals. The answer isn’t as simple is identifying the ones who are “crazy” and locking them up, because the crazy ones look and act strangely like everyone else until something goes terribly wrong. And arguing about gun control and possession isn’t the whole answer either. I’m puzzling over this mess with you. I’m scratching my head.
And like you, I’m holding my loved ones a little closer, I’m peering out of my window, looking at the city I love, and I’m goobing on my kittehs, aware of the same concern you have for your city and your loved ones. Do you see? It’s not you against “them”, the crazy ones. They are with us. They are us. When we understand that, we’ll act like mental health issues are an everyday part of our existence, like the way some of you have come to understand that fitness is a part of your daily routine. We’ll joke less about taking a “mental health day” every so often, and we’ll be dead-serious (no pun intended) about doing mental health inspections every day, starting with the questions, “How am I doing? What are my needs? What am I feeling? Who am I connected to? Is everything alright between myself and others?”
We will remember what we mean when we wish someone, “Shalom”.
Editor’s Note: I highly recommend you watch this provocative documentary Crooked Beauty by filmmaker Ken Paul Rosenthal. Mr. Rosenthal’s film is about mental health as depicted throughout the changing weather patterns of the San Francisco Bay area. The DVD can be ordered from the website. See the trailer on the website for a sneak peek.