In the wake of this month's tragic mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary, a broader discussion of mental illness and access to mental health care is starting to take shape, hopefully moving beyond the context of this tragedy and into a wider national conversation about public policy and social stigmas.
The direction this national conversation takes in the coming weeks and months will determine whether we can discuss mental health openly and promote understanding, or whether the stigma will only become more deeply entrenched. For better or for worse, this will have profound implications for children, parents, teachers - and veterans. The social and political status of mental health will impact many veterans' access to mental health care, their reception by the civilian community, and their perception of themselves and their experience.
Unfortunately, we currently live in a culture in which mental illness is so stigmatized, and the public so uninformed about science, that it looks like we can't even have a national conversation about it.
Immediately following the attack on Sandy Hook, many media outlets issued reports that seemed to be trying to link Lanza's heinous crime with an unconfirmed diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, is not a mental illness; it is a developmental disorder in which individuals have trouble recognizing, understanding, or reproducing social and emotional cues. People with autism and Asperger's experience emotions like everyone else; they only have difficulty expressing and interpreting signals. Autism does not make anyone prone to violence, and if Lanza had Asperger's (which, to my knowledge, has not been confirmed), it had no more to do with his actions than the color of his hair.
However, those initial reports form the associations that are most likely to stay in the public consciousness. It may be unclear how much of an impact these hasty, now-that-the-dust-is-settled clarifications will have on those associations, but consider the percentage of Americans who still think President Obama is a Muslim and the Mount Rainier shooter had PTSD. In this age of instant media and instant distraction, the opening salvo of reporting is crucial, because it is all many people will ever see.
Media outlets like the New York Times have since backpedaled, issuing clarifying statements and adding that they weren't trying to imply a connection, just trying to get as much information as possible into the public eye. What they also weren't trying to do was make sure that information was accurate and presented in a responsible, non-misleading way. The pressure for as much information as possible, up to the second and in sound bites that can be digested before the next text message, has pushed too many journalists into being careless in their work.
Careless reporting and bad facts have real consequences.
My heart goes out to those who live with Asperger's and autism and now must also live with their neighbors', employers', and total strangers' reactions in the wake of those hasty, uninformed, speculative reports. Many brilliant, good-hearted kids now face an even more challenging path thanks to poorly researched news reports and ratings-driven hype. This is a situation I am familiar with, because I've read far too many reports raising the concern that the same thing happens to military veterans who have - or only might have - post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD doesn't cause violence either - in fact, in the string of high-profile cases that the media has struggled to link with PTSD, not one perpetrator had even seen combat.
This blog focuses on veterans' issues specifically, but in the wake of the hype about the Sandy Hook shooter, it is clear that misinformation and stigmatization about mental health and developmental health is a problem bigger than any single condition or any single group of people. Now is the time for all of us with a stake in these issues to unite in a productive, informed discussion.
- Henneberger, Melinda. "Confusing Asperger's with mental illness, and mental illness with evil." The Washington Post. Dec. 18, 2012.
- Robison, John Elder. "Asperger's, Autism, and Mass Murder." Psychology Today. Dec. 17, 2012.
- Smith-Strickland, Kiona. "Cutting Through the Hype About Vets and PTSD." FilmAnnex. Aug. 1, 2012.
- Sullivan, Margaret. "Adam Lanza, Asperger's and a Misleading Connection with Violence." Public Editor's Journal, The New York Times. Dec. 18, 20120.