Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown Shooting: Obama Speaks, And a Coda on Mental Health

"No matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself, that this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community and the help of a nation.

“And in that way we come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”

On Sunday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation from a multi-faith prayer service in the town of Newtown, Connecticut. Just two days prior, the city was the scene of one of the deadliest shootings in the history of this country, with 20 children and six adults ultimately losing their lives in an act of terrorism that stunned the nation and sent concerned citizens rushing to their pillows in tear stained horror.

Much of the intervening two days has been spent arguing about seemingly trivial things. When is the right time to begin talking about the tragedy as an instrument for legal and societal change? How sensitive should the government be to the concerns of citizens who feel that owning firearms is a fundamental right, up there with the right to free speech and free expression of religion? Is there really anything we can do to stem the tide of violent outbursts like this?

These questions are all going to be debated ad nauseum for the foreseeable future, but President Obama really hit the nail on the head with his approach to his speech on Sunday night. Instead of framing the issue as solely a political one (which laws can we pass that can prevent this?), he opted to discuss the matter in terms that all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, can take to heart in an effort to make this country better.

“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, or set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.

“If there’s even one step we can take to save another child or another parent or another town from the grief that’s visited Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.”

The President perfectly articulated what I strove to convey in my blog on the shootings on Friday. In that piece, I wrote that “so long as this nation acts like apathy is an effective alternative to actually doing something, our kids are going to continue to die, and what should be completely unacceptable to every American is indirectly endorsed by all of them.”

I made a slight mistake in the syntax of that section of the text when I wrote it in a flurry of emotion on Friday night. Where I used the words “all of them” originally to describe the architects of this abdication of responsibility to the greater good, what I should have said was “all of us.” If I have to be fully honest here, I would have to say that I have fallen short of the litmus test of a productive life as put forward by the legendary educator Horace Mann, who said that people should “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” I could also apply to this rhetorical misstep the exhortation by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament when he said that “may he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

While my slip-up was definitely unintentional, as was evidenced by my frequent allusions to us and my call to step up as a nation, the Freudian nature of it cannot be overlooked. As Americans, we are all too often content to just go with the notion that we live in a meritocratic society where it is “every man for himself.” Of course, this is simply false, and we have scores of examples throughout our history where group action is the only thing capable of breaking the dams that hold back better incarnations of our society, but that doesn’t exactly fit as well with the pioneering ethos that has been drilled into our heads culturally our entire lives.
WE (and I use that term deliberately) need to remember that we are on this planet together, for better or worse, and that we might as well do everything in our power to ensure the common good over our own. We need to think long and hard about the questions that are facing us in the aftermath of this tragedy, and the President, once again, asked perhaps the most pertinent question, and it is one that we are going to have to grapple with in our own way moving forward:

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?”

The fact of the matter, Mr. President, is that this nation hasn’t exactly given you a lot of reason for hope when it comes to our ability to respond to crises during your tenure as President. Instead of engaging in a substantive debate over what we can do as a society to prevent more tragedies in the wake of shootings in Tucson and Aurora, we have instead kicked the can down the road and thrown our hands up as if to say “there’s nothing we can do. Why bother trying?”

Instead of agreeing with author Charles Bukowski, whose epitaph reads “Don’t try”, we as Americans need to finally address the root causes of these problems. It is going to take a long time to fix what is ailing this nation, and it will require a hell of a lot longer attention span than we have been prone to offer in the past few decades, but as more images of violence against children proliferate the media, the problem is going to continue to swell until we can’t ignore it any more. Will we wait until that day when we are finally over-saturated with bad tidings from the heartland, or will we finally seize the initiative now and get the momentum back on the side of righteousness?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing our confrontation with this epidemic of violence is the sheer divisiveness of the issues involved. The gun control issue is one that is going to end up being argued over until both sides are blue in the face, but even approaches that can be agreed upon in principle, such as mental health awareness,  have their own share of problems with effective implementation.

A conversation that I had with my friend Jen Conway, a hockey historian in training (fairly obvious then how I became acquainted with her) spells out the difficulties facing us in this endeavor. In my blog on Friday, I mentioned that the US needs to institute laws that make mental health care programs accessible to every American. When I asked her about her feelings on that kind of a stance on the issue, she replied in an agreeable, but subtly disagreeable, way:

“We can offer all the accessible health care we want, but I don’t think people are necessarily going to jump at it just because it’s there,” she said. “We really need to change the attitude toward illness. We need to take care of our friends, support them, watch for warning signs. We have to learn not to judge, not to dismiss, and to take warning signs seriously,” she added.

Of course, this seems pretty obvious on its face. It’s not like Jared Lee Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho were actively seeking help before  they went on their rampages. Instead, they were living lives replete with warning signs, but those around them did little to nothing in the way of stopping them from descending into private Hells that ultimately resulting in the shooting deaths of numerous people. They both had exhibited signs of mental illness in the time leading up to their crimes, but no one was capable of putting the pieces together in determining that they were legitimate threats to these types of outbursts.

Even if the Loughner’s and Cho’s of the world decided that they needed help, there is still the matter of obtaining it. Until 2014, health insurance is not under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act, so companies can still throw up road blocks to obtaining care due to pre-existing conditions. Making matters worse, even when those provisions take effect, there is still the challenge for a mentally ill person in even obtaining a job. Companies aren’t exactly hurting for employees at the moment, and with that ability to be choosy, it is all too easy for them to weed out those with disorders like depression and schizophrenia, thereby preventing those folks from obtaining the care that they need to keep those conditions in check. It is a vicious cycle, and a definite flaw in the argument that we just need to improve access to care and that everything else will take care of itself.

What Ms. Conway has nailed on the head is that we as a society cannot rely on people to step up and take control of their own lives if they are mentally ill. Instead, we have to be persistent in our efforts to get them to see that they are in need of assistance, and that being supportive isn’t some type of invasion of privacy. It’s actually a method of proving just how good of a friend you actually are.

But what of the stigma that still is attached to mental illness in this country? For years, mental illness has been a source of comedy (and still is, in movies such as “The A-Team” and others), and that has likely caused thousands of people with symptoms of conditions like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder to avoid seeking treatment for fear of ridicule by their friends and their communities.

Jen touched on a theme of understanding several times in my email exchange with her, saying at one point that “we have to treat people with mental illness with compassion and as dignified human beings, capable of everything anyone else is.”

That sentence struck a chord, because it implies that in our current society, we view the mentally ill as defective in some way. Conway said it herself earlier in the email, asserting that “for a very long time, mental illness wasn’t an illness, but some sort of personal fault or weakness.” She also used the term “defective” when referring to children who suffered from these ailments, and emphasized that even though it is less prevalent now, there are still people who feel that way; that they have somehow produced a child that isn’t “normal”.

These issues, taken as a whole, are frankly enormous. How on Earth can we undo decades and centuries of programming into our minds that mental illness is some type of breakdown, and that it is almost shameful to admit that you can have a problem? Changing that attitude among the American people is going to take time, but if Jen Conway is right, then we are certainly capable of improving our positioning on this issue.

“A little compassion and empathy goes a long, long way. Simple gestures can have the biggest effects when you least expect it,” she told me. If all of us in this country made it a point to be less judgmental when it comes to people we know experiencing difficulties in their lives, and if we were a little more aware of our surroundings when it comes to these types of problems, then we could dramatically alter the playing field in terms of grappling with this epidemic of violence. 

No, improved health care would not have the instant results that some Americans with limited attention spans are seeking, but any policy tinkering or societal changes will be slow progressing but wide reaching. Just challenging our own attitudes on mental illness is a tremendous first step toward understanding what these folks are going through on a daily basis, and it is something that all Americans are capable of doing.

If we can start by knocking out the little steps required to address the problem of gun violence in this country, then the bigger issues won’t seem so insurmountable. We’ll be able to tell President Obama that no, we aren’t “prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom.”

The United States has been a beacon of hope and freedom in the world for a very long time. Lately, the sheen has been taken off that polished exterior, and countries are starting to really question whether our foibles are going to ultimately lead to our demise. Events like the Newtown shooting are going to define our answer to those questions about our future as a world leader. If we respond in the way that this nation has historically done so, then we will emerge stronger than ever. If we give into the temptation to let someone else deal with the problem, to let others fend for themselves, then we will fail, and that is perhaps more damning to the memories of our Founding Fathers than taking a scalpel to the Second Amendment.

The choice is ours, and there is only one correct answer.

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