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Violence is an infectious disease

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We as a nation are experiencing the profound anguish and fear of another school shooting. Again mental illness becomes the too-easy target.

For the longest time, I have argued that mental illness and mass shootings are two different subjects.

I was wrong. Mental health belongs in this conversation, but we’re thinking too small.

The truth is: Even if the U.S. were able to eliminate mental illness as a factor, the nation would reduce gun-related crimes by less than 5 percent, according to CDC data. The truth is that people living with mental illness are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

Another truth: Violence is an infectious disease, and this nation is in the throes of a full-scale epidemic.

I was wrong because this unremitting violence has created a national mental health crisis. Every school shooting exposes more people to trauma, and not just those directly affected. Our first responders? What we demand of them is simply inhuman.

We’re traumatized also by the murder of Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer, and by the hundreds of acts of violence in this city every week.

Violence doesn’t have to happen near us to affect our mental wellness. NAMI Chicago’s Ending the Silence high school program helps students from around the city who are struggling with real trauma simply because they live here.

One of the hardest things we ask people living with mental illness to do is raise their hands to ask for help. The stigma society places on mental illness is so pervasive and so corrosive that for many the risk is simply too great. With every shooting, they see how society handles mental illness. And what if a person living with mental illness finds the courage to seek help? They’re met with an inadequate system.

The scary reality is that if our mental health system fails when one person raises his or her hand, how can it hope to help the entire country?

The United States needs a moon-shot level effort to bring our mental health system out of the 19th century. As a nation, we have a childlike grasp of the subject. Popular culture prizes wellness and living in the moment, but we still talk in hushed voices about “mental breakdowns.” We expect grade-school kids to know first aid, but commonsense mental health techniques are a mystery to college graduates.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For centuries infectious diseases terrified humanity, until science found the microscopic culprits. For centuries, we spoke in a whisper of the Big C, until immunotherapies and other treatments have given us hope of ending cancer’s terrible grip.

Violence is an infectious disease, and we know it affects us in a physical way. Researchers are learning more daily about brain function and how integral mental health is in physical well-being.

It is past time that we as a nation have an adult conversation about mental health. For years, my colleagues in the field have developed solid, actionable plans. It is past time now to act on them. Let us work together on local, state and national levels to build a robust mental health system—not because just one person needs help but because we all do.

NAMI Chicago’s mission is to improve the quality of life for those whose lives are affected by mental illness. That’s all of us.

This message first appeared in an email to NAMI Chicago’s supporters and is reprinted with permission from Alexa James, MS, LCSW who serves as Executive Director of NAMI Chicago. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CharityLogic and iCarol.

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Alexa James

Alexa James, a licensed clinical social worker, has devoted her professional life to serving people living with mental illnesses. In 2013, Alexa assumed the leadership of NAMI Chicago as Executive Director. In the 10 years preceding her appointment as Executive Director, Alexa worked with children and adults living with mental illness as well as those impacted by poverty and trauma. She earned her Master’s Degrees in Social Work from Loyola University and in Child Development from Erickson Institute. Alexa’s passion is to see that our community is equipped to support those in need of mental health support and to end the crippling stigma that attaches to those living with mental illness.

Comments (2)

  • Matthew Sharp


    The following was written in 2005 to encourage support for a mental health levy in Wooster, Ohio for the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Wayne and Holmes Counties. Many school and other shootings have come and gone since then. Each has started with someone hurting and ended with many hurting. It is known that we all need some help, and some need a lot of help. All of us may assist with encouragement, but professional guidance is essential. The point is not just that we need a better mental health care system, but also sensitivity and understanding from and for all folk.

    ” We have met the enemy, and they is us!” — Pogo (Walt Kelley)

    Pogo says it for all of us: it’s not just the other guy. Nor is it always someone else’s sister, brother, wife, mother, aunt, nephew and so on. In the area of mental health, it is us — ourselves, our families and our communities. Mental illness touches all families and all communities. We see the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless as well as the occasional high-profile effects of mental illness. Some of it one never sees as folks keep it hidden away in shame. In other cases it is dealt with as part of the human health condition: it is treated and hopefully helped. Still it makes us uncomfortable, and we wish we could ignore or deny it. Yes, it makes us uncomfortable, but it is part of us.

    In March we were shaken by the school shootings in Minnesota. But it isn’t just Red Lake, Columbine or Paducah, KY. It is also Wooster, Ohio. Remember the young arsonists who in the mid-90s burned the library of an elementary school, torched a house and shot at cars and people in their homes? Mental illness touches us here, at home. It is part of us.

    I like to say that pigheaded people suffer from hardening of the categories. Some of that hardening is believing only those who are seriously, obviously disturbed have mentally illness. Most folk need help from time to time. Consider how many folks have problems in marriage, relating to kids or parents, substance abuse, getting along in the workplace, managing anger or other behavioral excesses. Billions of words are written, taught and preached daily about the human condition because we obviously and variously need help. Some need more than others. But a need for help is part of us.

    Just as there are common illnesses like the cold and flu, more serious illnesses like pneumonia, and chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, there are different types and degrees of mental illnesses. Some mental illness is cancer of the mind, but much is just the result of stress and strain of daily living, susceptible to a kind word, hug or smile. As with general health, some illnesses can be endured until they are past, others are bearable with encouragement and sensitivity from family and friends. Still other conditions require occasional professional assistance. And then there are some that require constant care to live a more or less normal life, or even survive. Mental health and illness are part of us.

    Mental health caregivers vary in training, sensitivity and skill, and often they don’t even realize that they are caregivers. Folks can help each other with a cup of soup for a cold, or an open ear for depression. And those in the midst of trials of the heart are often able to give as well as receive. All one needs are good intentions (and a silent tongue) to listen, understand and encourage. Some folks find help sharing their problems with a friend over a cup of tea and a tear, others visit their pastor for counseling, and there are those who get advice from a doctor, lawyer, teacher or cop. All of these folks provide mental help just as surely as the psychiatrist, psychologist and social worker provide treatment and counseling. Through many, help, too, is part of us.

    The road to help is paved with good intentions. But we have to act on those good intentions both to seek and to give help. Are you willing to help or be helped? Come and join us … for yourself and others. Be a part of us.

    – mtsharp 2005


    • Dana


      Thank you for contributing to this important discussion, Matthew.

      If anyone else has additional thoughts and feelings about this, we encourage you to add your thoughts to the comments!


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