Newtown Aftermath: Picking up the Shattered Mental Health Pieces

In my suburban block, we are now starting to shield ourselves. We are putting up curtains where before we had none.  See the back of our houses face a forest.  Only deer, raccoons, chipmunks, bluejays and rabbits tend to frequent our yards.  Until now, again.  See, a mentally unstable man is back and is living off of our lands.  Two years ago police came to our door to alert us to the fact that someone was camping out on our property-which is so steep that we had no clue someone was living at the very top. Turns out that our trespasser is the brother of one of our neighbors. Specifically, he is the mentally ill brother of our neighbor and they didn’t seem to want to house him.  Apparently, he still wanted to be near them and thus camped out under the stars in our yard.  He was soon removed after we filed a complaint and we didn’t see him for two years.  But he is back and I don’t think he got the mental health help that he so desperately needed.  He wanders the streets of our small town of 8,000.  He wears a black trenchcoat and seems to have some measure of cutting up wood for his campsite.  My son noticed him through our window and I claimed it was Santa Claus. I didn’t want to frighten him.  How do you talk to a four year old about these seemingly increasing scary things? Instead of ignoring him and hoping he will go away; instead of putting up curtains and blocking his view; instead of calling the cops again and seeing him hauled off for a while; what can we all do to address this problem on a larger scale?

It took the loss of twenty young lives for the pundits, the talking heads and the watercooler talk to say “there is a mental health” problem in this country. Of course, for some in the punditry circles, the focus on mental health is meant to distract from the conversation we must also have on guns and the second amendment. Our nation was founded on the notion that we must protect ourselves from an overgrown government. That is the bedrock of this nation and that will never change. It makes us who we are as Americans. However, an Uzi, an assault rifle that can kill en masse—that seems to go beyond the second amendment.  Couple those machines of mass destruction with a society that is suffering from mental fatigue, illness and isolation, you then have an entire classroom annihilated. It should not be that a six year old girl survives a mass shooting by pretending to be dead. It should not be that a six year old girl has to bear witness to the murder of all her classmates.

Years back Tipper Gore made headlines when she focused her efforts on music lyrics and the stigmatization of mental illness. It seemed like she would help make progress on brining mental illness to the forefront of a national discussion. But things didn’t change too much.  The rumors were that Colin Powell had considered running for President but backed out for fear that his wife Alma, who suffers from depression, would be crucified by the media and opposing campaigns.  After Columbine, there was an enhanced effort on the widespread school bullying tactic.  Yet, note how many kids have taken their lives because they have been mercilessly bullied at school.   The American Psychological Association came out with strong efforts and words to try to curb school bullying.  The APA developed a report “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations” based on a study conducted by its Zero Tolerance Task Force.  What the taskforce found was that anti-bullying efforts have not necessarily been all that effective.  Many schools have zero-tolerance mandates and oftentimes the bully or rather the one that ends up getting caught acting aggressively is treated like a criminal.  Perhaps that person is subsequently booted out of school. But getting at the deeper root of the problem seems to elude most entities. Currently, the children’s cable channel Nickelodeon airs PSAs centered around what to do when someone is being bullied at school. The take home message in those PSAs : go find an adult.  But is this enough? Does this not seem like patchwork efforts rather than a comprehensive undertaking?

Having grown up in New York City, mental health issues have been more openly discussed and have also figured more prominently in our local 5pm newscasts. Till this day, I am a little cautious when I stop at the curb.  I have this gnawing fear that someone will come and knock a brick on my head. Such an occurrence happened in 1999 when a homeless man (known in the local neighborhood to be violent), unprovoked, attacked a young woman while she waited for the light to change.   That same year, two unsuspecting individuals were pushed in front of subway trains by assailants they had not previously known.  This yea- that’s right 2012- we have seen numerous similar subway platform incidents (one disgustingly shown on the front of the New York Post). I barely ride the subway these days.  I prefer to walk and walk fast at that. It is not so much that I am fearful, but rather that I like the exercise. Nevertheless, there is fear.  Back in 1999, New York City Mayor Giuliani noted that while ”conditions of life in all parts of the world and America carry with it a certain degree of danger you are never going to eliminate all of it completely.”  Two years later, after Mayor Giuliani cracked down on the homeless, another man threw bricks from a midtown construction site at passersbys, injuring a woman.  Is that the type of degree of danger we should tolerate?

I lived in Berkeley for 4 ½ years and there was a reason why some of us called it  bizerkely; and it wasn’t really for its counter-culture leanings since those vastly decreased years and years ago.  There was a famous homeless man in Berkeley that I ran across repeatedly.  He was famous because he was featured on Dateline or some news show to that effect. He had family members that were living in the Midwest that seemed eager to reconnect with him.  They showed photos of him when he was younger and vibrant.  Flash to current day and you will find a man whose body has physically morphed into that of a monster. His fingers seemed welded together. His hair is so filthy that he has maggots eating away at him.  But there were many signs years ago that he was in desperate need of help. But it never really came. There were many, many others like him: aimlessly wandering the streets of Berkeley holding odd conversations with themselves begging for food and change. A few hours ago while I was at Penn Station’s restroom I saw an elderly woman talking to herself who looked disheveled and in desperate in need of a shower Interestingly enough, I heard a cell phone ring and heard her answer it. She was talking to family members down south.  She has a cell phone?  She has family members that she talks to? What is going on here?

Ok, so homelessness and bullying are problems out there that are closely associated with mental health issues.   But what have we been doing? Many of these mentally ill adults out on the streets started their homeless and mental illness trajectory way back in their elementary and high school days.  What was done to substantively address those issues when they first presented themselves?  I can assure you in eight out of ten cases, not much.

As President Obama noted enough is enough and “we can’t tolerate this anymore”   We have not been doing enough.  We have indeed failed our children. We have indeed failed them all the way into adulthood.  But what is the political will to tackle not only gun control but also mental health issues?  Historically, mental health issues have stymied countless societies.  Certain mental illnesses were seen as involving the possession by evil spirits and demons.  Many believed, even as late as the twentieth century that the bizarre behavior associated with mental illness could only be an act of the devil himself. Who am I fooling?  Many believe that in the here and now. Why do you think that the Vatican had to establish an exorcism line a few weeks back (see my previous blog on exorcisms)? Interestingly, there were discussions around PTSD right after the Civil War. But not much was done to aid their suffering. Then in the 1930s lobotomies were introduced.  In 1954 the medical community introduced an anti-psychotic drug called Thorazine for the treatment of the mentally ill.   And so on…

The US National Institutes of Mental Health reports that about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That’s close to 60 million Americans.  What has led to these numbers?  What have we done to our environment that it is so mentally toxic and exhausting?  Since 1994, there have been 70 school shootings in the US. According to a Public Health Law Research report, gun restrictions on people with mental illness had no significant effect on homicide rates.  How is that possible?

These days when I give talks and presentations around the country, I often invoke the classic Kurt Lewin (esteemed granddaddy of social psychology) formula for determining the likelihood of performing set behaviors.  Namely, a behavior is the product of the person by the environment.  In geeky formula parlance: B = P x E.  Shooting 20 young souls was the product of Adam Lanza as a person (his history, his mental state, his genetics, his attitudes, his beliefs, his hopes) within a set environment (access to guns, isolation and so on).  You can’t impact just one part of the formula and expect behaviors to change all around.

In that same vein, mental illness treatment has always been a product of the times: the prevailing attitudes and technological advances.  Change will come?  It will come by each of us taking ownership of it.  Let us not abdicate our responsibility to help the mentally ill. Thus, even in my own backyard, I have to find a reasonable solution to the fact that a mentally ill man has no place to go other than my steep cold forest.  Things must change.

Although, originally performed several years for a different national tragedy, I find myself listening to the U2/ Greenday song:

A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief

How long now?

Until the weather change condemns belief

How long now?

When the night watchman lets in the thief

What’s wrong now?
The saints are coming, the saints are coming.

I say no matter how I try, I realize there’s no reply

The saints are coming, the saints are coming


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