OPINION: Don’t attach Newtown stigma to individuals with mental illnessesAdam Lanza is reported as supposedly having had a “developmental disorder” or even Asperger’s disorder. He has been described as “weird,” a “loner,” painfully shy.
By: ROSWITHA KONZ, The Daily Republic
In the wake of the most recent school shooting, questions arise as to “How could this happen?” and “What drives someone to shoot dozens of innocent people, especially children?” In the national debate, gun control laws and mental illness have emerged at the front of this debate. I’ll leave the gun control arguments to others, but would like to share with you my thoughts as far as mental illness is concerned.
Adam Lanza is reported as supposedly having had a “developmental disorder” or even Asperger’s disorder. He has been described as “weird,” a “loner,” painfully shy. Some reports insinuate that he “snapped” because his mother was planning to commit him to a psychiatric facility. So much speculation, so few facts. And amateur speculations on possible diagnoses can become very harmful to those who truly have the various disorders that are being speculated on. For example, the notion that people who have an autism spectrum disorder (of which Asperger’s syndrome is a part) lack empathy is completely false.
People with this disorder have great difficulty understanding and accurately interpreting social cues, among other things, which makes them seem awkward at times. However, they feel empathy like anyone else and would be crushed to learn their sister, parent, friend or even the family dog were in some kind of distress or pain. The same goes for people who have any kind of developmental disorder — these are gentle people with a deep sense of empathy which is only limited by their ability to communicate with others. People with these disorders are much more likely to be the victims of emotional and physical violence than to be the perpetrators.
Let’s entertain for a moment the notion that Adam Lanza had mental health issues. How is it that this young man, and likely his mother and other family members, suffered in silence, with few if anyone being aware of the extent of his and his family’s distress? As a society, we still attach such a stigma to any kind of mental health diagnosis that those who suffer from a mental illness are filled with shame for having one and do everything they can to keep anyone else from knowing. And yet, roughly one in four adults in the U.S. population met diagnostic criteria for the diagnosis of one or more mental disorders in the past year, and one in 17 suffered from a mental disorder that is classified as severe, meaning it limits one or more major life activities (source: National Institute of Mental Health). Just over 20 percent, or 1 in 5 children, currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder (source: NIMH). These numbers are staggering and reflect a tremendous amount of human suffering — by those carrying the diagnosis as well as those who care for and love them.
A word for the families of those suffering from mental illness — we know you want what is best for your loved one. We do not blame you for your loved one’s illness; in the vast majority of cases you did not do anything to cause the disorder. We know it is exceptionally hard to care for someone with a psychiatric disorder, and that parents and siblings of mentally ill young people may need therapeutic help and support themselves.
We are very fortunate in this community to have the full array of services — mental health, substance abuse, developmental disability — available to us, by a variety of providers and agencies. Please encourage those who are struggling to seek the help they need. And let’s each of us, in our own life, within our circle of family and friends and neighbors, examine our level of tolerance and our willingness to reach out to someone who may be “weird” or simply different. Let’s encourage our children, through discussion and by setting examples, to be tolerant.
Roswitha Konz is the clinical director of Dakota Counseling Institute in Mitchell.