90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Health

Susan Senator: Despite my fears, I am speaking out for the first time because I think it will help. As a society, we need to know that the mentally ill are among us, and we have to understand what they -- we -- need: acceptance and support. (wakingphotolife/flickr)

Amid the search and subsequent capture of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and in the weeks since, I was riddled with fear, dread, and curiosity.

I think that range of emotions was fairly common.

Perhaps slightly less common was the other emotion I felt: a vague sense of shame.

As someone who struggles with mental illness, I was waiting for everyone to start speculating about depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia as a possible explanation.

Assuming that violent perpetrators are mentally ill is common. (Sometimes they are. Sometimes not.) We theorize about mysterious disorders and imagine the dark demons that must lurk within killers like Tsarnaev or Newtown’s Adam Lanza. We assume something must be wrong with them. How else could they be capable of such unspeakable destruction?

It’s scary to talk about, because I never know what people will think of me once they know. Will they think I’m kind of broken? Somehow lesser?

So I was relieved when people who knew Dzhokhar Tsarnaev started coming forward. Former classmates and teachers describe him as a friendly, social guy. A person they would never have suspected capable of such devastating actions. Someone who was not depressed or despairing. This time, at least, I would not have to listen to ignorant comments about mental illness.

That ignorance is painful for me as someone who has bipolar disorder 2, the milder form of the condition. It’s scary to talk about, because I never know what people will think of me once they know. Will they think I’m kind of broken? Somehow lesser?

Mostly I get one of two reactions: skepticism or quiet sorrow. People don’t get it. No, I don’t have voices in my head — other than my mother’s. What I live with is basically terrible mood swings. I have phases of deep depression: pockets of emptiness, times when I feel I orbit around people, detached and yet in deep, inexplicable pain. These times are interspersed with normal, stable periods and also with times of troubling highs called hypomania — not to be confused with full-on mania, which can necessitate hospitalization. During the highs, I have endless energy, I accomplish many tasks, I join groups, I try new things — perhaps too many. This might sound like what everyone experiences normally; we’re all part of the wide spectrum called the Human Condition. Even someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

But the common misconceptions of mental illness — and the often mistaken associations between such illness and those who commit atrocities — make it hard for those of us who are “garden-variety” people who happen to be struggling with cycles of deep pain. Even I hadn’t quite accepted my diagnosis until recent age-related hormonal activity forced me to. I also feel a little embarrassed taking up diagnosis space when there are so many more needy than I. But more than that, I feel the fear of contempt. I’m a public speaker, a college professor and a former local politician; because of the widespread ignorance, my mental illness may damage my credibility — which it should not. It might cause people to pity or fear me, which they should not.

Despite my fears, I am speaking out for the first time because I think it will help. As a society, we need to know that the mentally ill are among us, and we have to understand what they — we — need: acceptance and support. As with any disability, those affected need help, access to health care, and a society that follows the facts, not Grimm’s fairy tales. Indeed, if society makes it impossible for even a bipolar 2 person like me to acknowledge the disorder for fear of ostracism or worse, how much harder is it for the more extreme cases?

If society makes it impossible for even a bipolar 2 person like me to acknowledge the disorder for fear of ostracism or worse, how much harder is it for the more extreme cases?

The fact is, most people with mental illness are not dangerous — particularly if they are under a doctor’s care. According to a July 2011 piece in Scientific American, “Surveys show that 60 to 80 percent of the public believes that those diagnosed with schizophrenia, in particular, are likely to commit violent acts… [yet] in reality, severely mentally ill people account for only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes in the general population.”

Ignorance and fear about mental illness are understandable, particularly during a crisis, when emotions run so high that it’s hard to think rationally. But they are not acceptable. Our ancestors blamed demons or parenting or original sin because they didn’t know any better, and they didn’t know how to help. But we do. We have educational, sensory, behavioral and medicinal therapies for people on the autism spectrum and for mental illnesses. We should embrace these developments and make them widely accessible.

The way I have come to understand my diagnosis is in terms of neurology and brain chemistry, not morality. Until we as a country and culture understand and support those with mental disorders, we will not make headway against human suffering. We have to know what really made the Tsarnaevs or Lanza act as they did. Was it something as simple — and yet utterly complicated — as pure Evil? And what does that mean? How is evil created in a person and defined by science? We need to be able to tease apart the real causes of violence to begin solving our most terrible problems, or else we face the prospect of isolating and endangering even more innocent people around us.

Related:

Tags: Boston Marathon Bombings

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harold-Maio/1398619703 Harold Maio

    we need to know that the mentally ill are among us

    “The” mentally ill? How insulting. Try “the” Blacks in
    your assertion to see what you have approved.

    Ignorance and fear about mental illness
    are
    understandable

    Why? I see them neither as “understandable” nor
    acceptable. Ignorance is acceptable? To whom?

    The fact is, most people with mental illness are
    not dangerous…

    I am certain this technique (Praeteritio, negating a
    carefully selected negative) was not deliberately employed.

    Sometimes “helping” is not. Far too much of this
    article was not.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

    Why? I see them neither as “understandable” nor
    acceptable. Ignorance is acceptable? To whom?

    The fact is, most people with mental illness are
    not dangerous…

    I am certain this technique (Praeteritio, negating a
    carefully selected negative) was not deliberately employed.

    Sometimes “helping” is not. Far too much of this
    article was not.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

    • Robin, LMHC

      Mental Health Editor? What is it that you edited? I’ve not heard that term.

      • Harriss B

        I also wonder about the poor editing in his own posts..

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harold-Maio/1398619703 Harold Maio

    please

  • http://twitter.com/Bipolar_Bandit BipolarBandit

    Thanks for writing this article. I, too was relieved when I heard that it was not mental illness and was a terrorist as I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 25 years ago. I think the same thing every time there is a tragedy and hope that it has nothing to do with someone who is mentally ill therefore worsening the already huge problem with stigma. I wrote an article “Good News: Mental Illness is Being Talked about!” http://wp.me/p2Ge94-ut that relates to your topic. Please take a few minutes to sign a petition and spread the word about it that I and others are hoping will make a difference in the stigma and raising awareness about mental ilnesses. http://www.petition2congress.com/9076/mental-illness-awareness-week-being-observed-in-2013/

  • Miz Kizzle

    Ignore Harold. He is one of “the annoying” who make up an estimated 18 percent of the population. Like poison ivy and fire ants, the annoying appear to have no purpose other than to spread misery and loathing to all who are unfortunate enough to encounter them.
    The annoying can be identified by their smug expressions, sanctimonious opinions and their tendency to take umbrage faster than Lindsay Logan checks out of rehabs. They can frequently be found lurking in the comments section of online news stories, where they chastise the author of the article over petty details that make no sense to anyone who is not one of the annoying. The annoying correct other commenters’ grammar and spelling for no reason other than to show off how clever they fondly imagine themselves to be. The sad fact is that the annoying cannot be cured and, as yet, there is no treatment available to make them less annoying, although the rest of us fervently hope for a scientific breakthrough.

    • renee

      No comment on Harold but your comment is very annoying, immature and obnoxious. Crawl back into your hole Kizzle.

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    We have to know what really made the Tsarnaevs or Lanza act as they did. Was it something as simple — and yet utterly complicated — as pure Evil? And what does that mean? How is evil created in a person and defined by science? We need to be able to tease apart the real causes of violence to begin solving our most terrible problems, or else we face the prospect of isolating and endangering even more innocent people around us.

    Hannah Arrendt discovered “evil” to be quite banal, almost mindless obliviousness to the suffering of others. M. Scott Peck thought “evil” could be diagnosed in terms meaningful to psychiatry. Simon Baron-Cohen suggested that “evil’ corresponds to a near-total lack of empathy. René Girard, James Gilligan, and John P. Moran, building on the insights of Fyodor Dostoevsky, constructed scientific models and further insights into the roots of violence in the culture.

    References:

    The Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt, 1963.

    The Roots of Good and Evil, Simon Baron-Cohen, TEDx Talk.

    Contagion, René Girard’s Systems Theoretic Model of Competition, Conflict, and Violence in the Culture.

    Roots of Violence in the Culture, James Gilligan (video).

    People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck, interviewed by Richard D. Heffner on The Open Mind, PBS (video).

    The Solution of the Fist: Dostoevsky and the Roots of Modern Terrorism by John P. Moran, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw Georgia.

TOP