Violence and Mental Illness

Today I pray, along with so many others for the victims of the Arizona shooting yesterday: six dead, at least 12 others injured, including Congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The man in custody for this violence is now being held on multiple counts of murder, and his background searched for clues to his destructiveness. The county sheriff says the young man has mental issues. I say No Kidding.

Most of us who suffer from issues of behavior, emotion and thinking have what are called mental disorders. In other words, we as individuals have problems. Problems we know as something a part of ourselves but distinct from ourselves as a people. Those who suffer mental illness are people whose disorders have them. Major mental illness (MMI) like schizophrenia or psychosis so distorts the mind, mood, perception and behavior that we have commonly called these people "out of their mind." They behave as if they don't have two normal thoughts to rub together. Often, they don't.

American courts have long recognized this distinction, with what most of us know as the insanity defense. Someone may be considered guilty of an action but not punishable, not sent to prison, because they were "out of their mind" when committing a crime. Instead, they are committed to a psychiatric hospital in a locked ward. Prison for the insane. Most never get out, because it's pretty hard to get your mind back once you're out of it.

Our current cultural political and religious speech, so out of control with hatred, divisiveness and extremism, is like gasoline to MMI's fire. Words do have that kind of power, to inflame emotions and create sides where there needs to be common cause. Shame on those who, like former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, have used their political power to incite violence with website images of a gun's cross-hairs on an picture of a political opponent. Her ignorance of how her words can hurt people is mind boggling.

Internet technology gives hate speech a world-wide audience. When politicians stir up hate in the name of partisanship, it is no wonder those whose minds are disturbed and distorted by illness take their rhetoric for truth. And occasionally act on it.

Mental illness is the next great medical frontier. Just as MRIs, blood tests, CT scans and Xrays have given us astonishingly detailed windows into our bodies, I pray for increasingly clear windows of understanding into the most mysterious of all our organs, our brains. One day we may be more able to anticipate and treat MMI before individuals become violent to themselves or to others. It won't save us from our stupidity and ignorance, though. So far, there's no cure for that, save education, humility and self control. Something, at least right now, is in dangerously short supply amongst many in politics, media and self promotion. 

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