Words Matter

On December 14, 2012 twenty children and six adults were shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A military style weapon, the Bushmaster .223 caliber model XM15-E2S rifle with high capacity 30 round clips, was used by twenty year old Adam Lanza who, according to news reports, may have had a form of autism which is a developmental disorder.

Since that horrible day our shocked nation has plunged into a discussion surrounding the prevention of future similar tragedies as we mourn the victims of that senseless shooting. In essence, we are a nation in grief seeking ways to deal with the incomprehensible—the bullet-riddled imagery of babies. And we desire to leave no issue unaddressed as we strive toward our responsibility as citizens in a country that accepts gun ownership as a constitutional right.

And this is where things can get a bit murky. Part of our national conversation includes issues relative to our society’s mentally ill and their presumed tendency toward violence.

Much of our focus has been on the necessity of keeping guns out of the hands of those with psychiatric disorders. Indeed, we’re hard-pressed to find news reports, opinion pieces, investigations, and congressional hearings that do not carry the “mental illness-violence association.” Yet we run the risk of strengthening some existing, negative, social connotations that often feed our ideas and formulate our imagery regarding this group. For example, who has not heard that “lunatics” and “crazies” kill people, or that those who are “sick in the head” are the most capable of doing so in our society?

In actuality, this is far from the case. Though less than 7% of those diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder commit criminal acts, it is also true that the majority of those with mental illness in our country are not violent. They are, in fact, more likely to harm themselves than others. And they are the most likely to be preyed upon by other groups. This population is one of the most vulnerable among us. And the most stigmatized.

Our discrimination of this group is not new. People who think and behave inconsistently with cultural norms have always lived among us. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that technological advances allowed researchers to find ways of adjusting imbalanced brain chemistries within this group that allowed them to live within convention. These days most people with psychiatric disorders can live normal lives with the help of medications and various cognitive and talk therapies. But only if these treatments are readily available to those who need them.

Our mental health system is, like much of the rest of our health care system, difficult to access and expensive. People with psychiatric disorders need maintenance care. Many need medications throughout their lifetimes. Yet many people do not seek help because of stigma. And stigma continues because our culture has assigned mental health/illness issues a low priority.

It’s important to understand that our words matter along with the associations they express. Especially when there exist strong, social connotations. While we can benefit from discourse on mental illness within the context of gun and violence control, we run the danger of removing the focus from the event that shocked us into our dialogue. That Adam Lanza may have suffered from a form of autism is regrettable. That his parents had few health resources available to them added to their personal tragedy which, unfortunately, exploded into our national one. But we do a disservice to the millions of non-violent people with psychiatric disorders by allowing the continuation of the stereotype that they’ve been cast into.

The 26 people killed in Newtown were killed with a military style rifle that would have continued to have been banned under the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. The ban expired during the Bush administration and was not reinstated. Another aspect of this tragedy.

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