Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In response to Newtown, CT

The shootings in Connecticut have put a spotlight on a number of issues which had been in the shadows of our collective minds, those of gun control and mental health among them.  Tragedies such as this connect us on a deep level, because we all were children at some point, and we all can remember the feelings of innocence and comfort with loving teachers, parents, neighbors or even strangers.  What we struggle to understand, however, is how one man can so ruthlessly exterminate this innocence in one fell swoop.  As I read somewhere, the children were in the age “between the world of magic and the world of reality.”  The magic was stolen and replaced with a terrifying reality.

Whether it’s because of this connection or something else, we as a society have begun to focus on the elephant or elephants in the room.   We look at what could have caused a man to kill not just one person, but a whole classroom worth of kids, along with their mentors, all at once.   There is no doubt that gun laws need to be modified.   People with guns kill other people, and that has become increasingly frequent in the United States.  Apart from that, people look to how the gunman was different from the rest of us, and what readily comes to mind is his mental state.  While that certainly played an important role in his rampage, mental illness itself does not cause people to become violent.  Less than 5% of mass murders are committed by those with a diagnosed psychiatric illness.  Another idea that has been tossed around, however, is that it was the threat of being hospitalized for his mental illness that caused him to act violently.  Regardless of whether it was in fact the reason, this makes more sense.   He likely felt trapped and scared, as many would in that situation.

Anger and violent behavior come when people are feeling alone, disconnected, misunderstood, and isolated from the ones with whom they most want to connect emotionally.  Certain mental illnesses may make it almost impossible for the individual to connect meaningfully with others, but the desire to do so remains strong.  It is not that there weren’t mental health services available to this person (he lived in a well-to-do town in a well-to-do state).  A simple search on lists 27 therapists in Newtown, a city of 60 square miles.  That’s about one therapist for every 2 square miles, not counting the other therapists in other directories or not listed at all in the internet.

As far as mental health is concerned, the problem has not been access to services, but rather access to effective services.  Innumerable studies, books and articles have come out during the past 20 or so years, citing discoveries in neurobiology and neuroplasticity, discussing how neural pathways in the brain are always reforming and reshaping in response to experiences, and conversely, how responses to experiences are reshaped as a result of the changes in the neural pathways.  (While much has been written about this, an excellent book is The Brain that Changes Itself , by Norman Doige, MD. ) 

Effective psychotherapy aims at rewiring the brain, so that disturbing emotions are reduced or eliminated completely.  It is the way that the mind responds to experiences or events that causes people to feel whatever emotion they feel.  Although I admit I am biased, Rapid Resolution Therapy is, as far as I’m concerned, by far and away the most effective in eliminating disturbing emotions and in instilling clarity and peace, by reorganizing the mind’s response to those events.  Yoga, mindfulness meditation, and other disciplines which focus on the awareness of one’s self in the present moment all work to this same end.
I envision a time in the not-too-distant future, when all mental health therapists will be practicing effective therapy, so that no client/patient resorts to violence.

On another note, a silver lining—if there may be one—is that the families of these children have each other.  They share the same tragedy forever.  They have received support from the world at large, but even after that fades, they have each other.   The death of a child is one of the most difficult, lonely and isolating experiences one can ever have, but to share that suffering with a group, to connect with the only others who could come close to understanding, is tremendous.

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