I turned on the news this afternoon aware that the tragic shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre late last night would be covered in depth. What I didn’t anticipate was the absolute sense of sorrow and grief I would instantly feel. Overwhelmed, I turned off the television and cried. Like many of you, I’m connected to this horrific incident only through the shared human experience of shock and disbelief. My eyes begin to water and I zone out as I continue to skim the reports and accounts of what happened just 12 hours ago.
What happened to us? What happened to James Eagan Holmes — a medical student from the University of Colorado — to cause this unspeakable suffering? How do we prevent things like this from happening again? Can we prevent these life-altering events? I have more questions than answers and feel little comfort in my ability to intellectually understand that some things just are — no reason, no justifiable motive. Life can just be cruel and evil.
And the pit in my stomach isn’t caused by my sadness or shock. It’s the sickening realization that this shooting isn’t the first and won’t be the last. How many days have we stumbled out of bed only to hear the news as we get our coffee or scan the media sites as we check our email that a gunman has randomly opened fire on innocent people, their lives once spent in daily moments and memories before dying in sheer terror? April 2012, Oakland, California: A lone gunman killed seven people and injured three. Virginia Tech, 2007: Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people and wounded 17. The list goes on, categorized by school shootings, mall massacres and other seemingly innocuous criteria.
I can and will blame James Holmes for this massacre. But I am also going to blame a society and culture that damns the consequences of the very issues it seeks to silence. We condemn crazy, irrational behavior along with the treatments that may prevent it. The stigmatization of mental illness is so pervasive that in 2008 Psychology Today noted that embarrassment and patients’ fear of discovery has hardly changed in the past few decades. We associate therapy and psychology with mental illness and tell ourselves we don’t need therapy for our own life struggles. It’s been well-documented that most veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder don’t seek treatment for justifiable fear of criticism from the military, their friends and employers, and perhaps even from themselves.
It wasn’t until 2002 that Congress prohibited employers from interviewing applicants and employees about their mental health history. So let’s be honest: We are part of a society that continually snubs its nose at anyone and everyone who struggles in life and asks for professional help, yet we feel justified in our questions that seek to answer how tragedies happen in our communities. Tragedies happen in large part because people suffer severe psychotic breaks — and these are often the result of a slow buildup of pressure without release. We tell ourselves we had no idea... but we did, we knew; it's just that no one wanted to take closer look.
We need to ask ourselves how we can truly help. We need to feel compelled to dismantle harsh stereotypes of mental illness and promote a culture of respect for those who are brave enough to seek help with life when they feel lost, trapped or stressed. We need to remove this division of normal vs. abnormal and instead focus on overall health.
If we can’t get to a better place as a society then we shouldn’t feel so shocked when it frightens us.
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