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Craven: Thinking About Mental Health

01/19/11 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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Portrait by Todd R. Lockwood
(HOST) From a Tucson parking lot to schools in Vermont, recent tragic events have caused filmmaker, teacher and commentator Jay Craven to reflect on how we think about mental health.

(CRAVEN) Clearly, the alleged Arizona killer was troubled.  But terms used by some to describe him, like wacko, lunatic, and psycho don't help us understand either him, or the deeper issues of what can happen when mental health issues go undiagnosed and untreated.  In Tucson, teachers and students felt the shooting suspect was weird and potentially dangerous.  Their response was to suggest he get help and then drop him out of school.  He appears not to have sought treatment - and to have become increasingly isolated in ways that only made things worse.

National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 26% of Americans experience mental health disorders each year.  Within 20 years, depression is expected to be the leading U.S. cause of disability.  46% of 13-to-18 year-olds suffer mental disorders during their childhoods - a higher number than face serious physical conditions.  20% of kids face difficulties functioning.  But only 6% of medical expenditures treat mental illness. 

At least half of us experience bouts with mental health during our lives - after the break-up of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, an experience in military combat, as a victim or perpetrator of bullying, trauma, or sexual abuse - or during a period of addiction or anxiety. 

These things happen - which is why we shouldn't only associate mental illness with extreme conditions. But things can deteriorate when early signs are ignored and the fear of stigma keeps people from seeking help.   Our challenge is to facilitate recovery by providing access to quality mental health services that are as easy to obtain as a mammogram or flu shot.

Very few people suffering from mental disorders turn to violence.  They're actually at higher risk of being victims of homicide or suicide.  Still, some believe that the Tucson shooter was influenced by the toxic political environment where we see increasing vandalism, gunshots into offices, death threats against public figures, and pundits and politicians hurling terms like target, crush, re-load, bury, and "wipe them out."

Whether or not this was the case in Tucson, it's clear that extreme politics can indeed fuel blind obsession and aberrant forms of behavior.  Millions of Germans, caught up in collective hysteria, helped Nazi's seize and exterminate Jews.  Stalinism spawned persecution and paranoia in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  I'd argue that the virulent racism that led to lynchings and hateful segregation in America also fostered a collective state of mental illness.  China's cultural revolution, the killings in Rawanda, 1950's McCarthyism and other extreme movements have all stimulated hate, violence, and acts of madness that can feed on themselves-and multiply.

If we feel moved to take action for our beliefs, the recent celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday reminds us that King suffered sometimes deep depression but never abandoned his belief in the creative power of non-violence - which he said, "cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it.  It is a sword that heals."

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