When It’s Too Late to Talk

Last Thursday evening, a former employee at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis walked into the workplace where he’d been fired earlier in the day, shot five people to death, wounded two others and then killed himself.

In a metro area, even events in the same city can seem far away. They have to, if only to protect ourselves from the very random factors that can influence the means and times of our deaths.  As our minds work hard to separate and distance ourselves from the victims, to be “us” and they “them”, we are being human, but disingenuous.

On November 1st, 1991, I left my Russian language class in Room 203 at Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa campus. A few hours later, a physics student by the name of Gang Lu entered Room 203 and killed himself. He had just killed four members of the physics department, the associate vice president for academic affairs, and severely wounded a secretary, paralyzing her from the neck down.

For the next few days after the university shooting, I stayed away from campus. Eventually I stopped watching or reading the news. When I returned to classes, nothing was visibly different, except that my afternoon class had been moved. Our lives went on as if nothing had happened. It was easier to pretend that it hadn’t. It was easier to pretend that there weren’t walking time bombs among us still. It was easier to pretend that, by mere circumstance, we would not be the target of someone’s rage and paranoia.

We populate our discussions with the Second Amendment, mental health issues and the environment that nurtured a killer. People who interacted with them either questioned their own roles or reacted defensively to any inquiry. There is grand and overreaching discussion about the “system”. We look to something or someone to blame. It keeps us separate – from the “them” that killed and from the “them” that died.

In the recent Minneapolis shooting, the shooter’s family recognized there was something wrong several years prior. They tried to do the hard thing of dealing with the troubled man and he stopped dealing with them. There are simply no easy answers or solutions. It’s easier to convince ourselves that we won’t ever be in that situation. Then we forget and we stop talking about it.

Most of us know them – people who are slightly “off”. We categorize them as eccentric or harmless, either tolerating or avoiding them. They mutter angrily to themselves, react weirdly to small talk or stay silent, no matter how much you try to engage them. I worked in a retail environment and was responsible for the firing of an individual who threatened that he’d be waiting for me in the parking lot. Scary, but on some level, reasonable – an immediate reaction and corollary to his anger. But the simmering pots, always just on the verge of boiling over, catch us by surprise when they finally do.

It is human nature to seek reason in the irreconcilable. We do have a mental health crisis in this country, although most mental illnesses do not result in violence. We do have a system that only stops the next tragedy. Or maybe the next. This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2% of Americans, 18 or older, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. That’s about 1 in 4 adults.

I know mental illness and I know the destruction brought on by both undiagnosed and diagnosed disorders. My father, who suffered from depression most of his life, committed suicide when I was 18. My aunt, a diagnosed manic-depressive, self-medicated through alcohol, which eventually killed her. We need to help those families that have to live with the consequences. We need to provide more options to employers and families when someone starts to veer off into trouble. We are the safety net for each other. We need to talk about it NOW in this country and not wait for another tragedy to start up the conversation again. We need each other.

October 11th, 2012 is National Depression Screening Day. There is an anonymous online assessment available here.

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23 Comments on “When It’s Too Late to Talk

  1. Recently the law enforcement folks in our town were given special training in dealing with the mentally ill. It’s a start.

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    • It is a start and I think awareness is definitely growing in this country. We’re had several shootings over the years in the metro area where people with mental illnesses would not follow police instruction or wielded knives and ended up being shot. It’s a very difficult problem for everyone involved, but continued and growing awareness will surely help.

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  2. This post and writing here is doing a great service to help reduce stigma and help us to realize that it often is indeed “too late to talk” and that it’s okay to ask for help. Thought-provoking and very well expressed.

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    • I seem to pick subjects that are impossible to end with nice little summaries. Conversation always has to be the starting point for difficult issues though, so this is my bit. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  3. What a great post! An important and seldom mentioned topic: mental illness and the fact that it is our problem, though it might be easier to turn away.

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    • I think, too, that the sheer complexity of the problem is overwhelming. But it’s important to bring the issue front and center since left unacknowledged, it has so many consequences. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  4. I have suffered from depression for years, for most of my life really. I read somewhere that the word “cancer” used to be whispered. Now, we should be working to bring the word “depression” (or “anxiety”) out of the shadows.

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    • I’ve always been a “high-functioning” whatever, but I had to learn a lot of coping mechanisms. With a family history of mental illness, we always all talked about how “crazy” we were, so I never really felt stigmatized until I began to realize that not everyone talked about it. I still talk about it, obviously. I think there is growing awareness, but when I talk to people and there is still, as you say, a whispered tone, I wonder why it has taken so long.

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  5. Thought-provoking post!

    I worked in the mental health field for half of my working life. When my instructors at nursing school heard I was going to work at the state hospital, their comments were derogatory, to say the least. (This was in 1969.) Over the years, I have seen great changes in how those with mental illness are treated – better drugs, better therapies – but there is still the stigma I encountered 40+ years ago.

    I saw a series of commercials a while ago where a famous person was “supporting” a family member with a mental illness. And I’ve seen commercials about depression by well-known personalities who also suffer from depression. It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go. The conversation needs to start with those of us who know about depression, and psychoses, and delusions, and hallucinations.

    All forms of mental illness are still thought of as a willpower problem. If we could only educate people that it’s a condition like diabetes that can be controlled with medication or some other therapy. But there are still those who think mental illness is contagious; or they don’t know how to deal with the mentally ill, so they stay away.

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    • I think, too, we have just hit the tip of the iceberg on how the brain functions, so it’s hard to talk about it and present it as a biochemical issue versus psychological one. Thanks so much for weighing in with your expertise. I feel sad that so many people suffer and think that they are alone or that they can’t tell someone. We’re enlightened as a species in so many ways, but sometimes neanderthal in our inability to talk about things truly affecting the human condition.

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  6. Wow, you have been close to the darker side of the human psyche! It’s not an area I know much about.

    I do sometimes wonder if certain segments of society are overly-aware and over-medicated. Seems like ADHD and autism are becoming very common diagnoses. I don’t know what to think about that. Are we more aware or more prone to medicate? Is the problem more prevalent than it was? (Is modern society really screwing people up?)

    That’s not to take anything away from people who are truly suffering from mental problems. Apparently many of them end up homeless, since they’re not criminals (can’t be locked up) and can’t earn income. Sometimes I wonder if society will topple under its own weight.

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    • Sometimes when I tell about my life experiences, it will hit me on occasion that it’s pretty intense. But once I say it/write it, I’m amazed at all the interesting stories other people share.

      There are certainly arguments about the overuse and over-diagnosis of some conditions. Part of it is the uber-lucrative pharmacological industry’s promotion of prescription drugs. On the other hand, I hear so many stories from adults and parents about what a huge, positive difference these diagnoses and treatments make in their lives. Balance will always be tricky. Even if it is overdone, it’s certainly preferable to the neurological “fixes” from the past – lobotomies or just committing people indefinitely for things like depression or PTSD.

      If you have a mental illness, life is hard, even if you’re not ending up homeless. Behind closed doors, people are suffering in silence, unaware that they are not alone, that there is a reason and that there is help – that’s how information and conversation can make all the difference.

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      • Your thoughts and words, as is so often the case, make good sense and sound “right on” to me! So very true that any progress has to start with conversation. I will also add that, had my ex-wife started taking the meds that she did a few years after the divorce, we might still be married, so I am very inclined to agree that the meds can be hugely helpful.

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  7. We need to put money back into our mental heath services. People need treatment and families need support. So many lives could be saved and made better. This man’s family may have been able to avert this disaster with help.

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    • I feel badly for the family in Minneapolis, as they did try to use the available resources for their loved one. After that, until something criminal happened, there was nothing else they could do. And you’re right, the mental health system in this country needs to be invested in. If people want to argue about it in economic terms, it costs our country a lot of money at one end or the other – homelessness, work absences, lowered productivity, etc.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting! Writing about it is a small gesture in the grand scheme of things, but I feel strongly about issues of mental illness. And one more voice saying “hey, you’re not alone” can only help.

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  8. I remember the Nov 1 shootings too. And every time there’s another shooting, I wonder why we haven’t progressed as a society in preventing these tragedies. Ultimately, I think that it is the very nature of mental illness that isolates the mentally ill person from the rest of us that prevents adequate treatment. No – I’m not blaming the victim, but observing that their very illness prevents them from seeking the help they need. After that, we can’t do anything until there is a criminal act (or threat of it), like you said.

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    • It is truly a complex issue. It seems to be an intersection of mental illness, availability of weapons and the inability to figure out a way to save people on both sides of the equation.

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