Mentally Ill More Often Victims of Violence Than Perpetrators

To follow up on last week’s post about gun violence at the hands of the mentally ill, I’d like to draw your attention to a recent meta-analysis published in The Lancet. The analysis, which compiled 21 studies between 1990 – 2010, found that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the rest of the population. The report finds that one in four people with mental illness experiences violence of some type in a given year, as reported by the BBC.

E. Fuller Torrey, prominent researcher and writer on mental illness, had this to say: “It is a sad commentary on the nature of public interest that the estimated 1% of individuals with untreated severe mental illness who commit acts of violence grabs so many headlines while the 25% of those who fall victim to violence generate so few. It is equally difficult to fathom how critics can find involuntary treatment more unacceptable for those in need of treatment than the high chance they’ll become victims of violence.”

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A Tragic Day in Seattle

Yesterday, just a few miles from my house, a rash of killings left five dead and one critically injured after a man walked into a cafe and shot five people. A half hour later the same man killed a woman and stole her car. While I locked my doors and said my prayers of relief that I was at home, the police chased the suspect, later identified as Ian Stawicki. As police were closing in yesterday afternoon, the suspect shot himself and later died at the hospital. Today, information has come out that mental illness is a factor in this shooting.  The Seattle Times blog reports that according to the suspect’s brother,

Ian Stawicki “changed about five years ago into a mentally ill individual who was ‘really angry toward everything.'” With this news, I cannot be angry at the man who killed so mercilessly. My heart goes out to Ian Stawicki’s family, who lost a son too soon, and to all of the victims and their families who lost their loved ones in such a horrific manner.

This event is so tragic because it’s preventable. In Arizona, a year and a half ago, a well-armed mentally ill man shot Gabby Giffords and many others in January 2011. After the shooting there was a national conversation around access to guns and mental illness, but little happened.

And now…this. Again.

As the daughter of a severely mentally ill woman who has been violent (with a knife), I am struck in particular by this event. I saw my own mother change from a normal person to one who was often agitated, angry, and at times very scary. Despite our efforts, there was very little we could do to help her. Washington has a law that states a person must be a “danger to themselves or others” to be committed. After my mom threatened her own mother with a knife, we were finally able to get her committed, several years after her initial (extreme) psychotic break. However, little more than a month after her commitment and her diagnosis (paranoid schizophrenia), she was released by the hospital to the streets. She has been without a home and without medication for the past 18 years. In November, due to budget cuts, she lost the few hundred dollars she received every month. My mother’s story is the story of so many people across the country who are mentally ill. And then there are those, like Ian Stawicki, who are able somehow to keep it together enough to feed, clothe, and even arm themselves. But two thing holds true for all: mental illness is a physical condition just like any other illness, and society has repeatedly failed these individuals and their families.

My son or daughter, because of their genetics, is much more likely to be mentally ill than their peers. This man could have been my son. And despite all my attempts to help, he could have easily acquired a gun and shot six people. And then, like Ian Stawicki’s family, my family may have been demonized for “not doing enough to help” as some are now saying about Ian Stawicki’s family. Let me tell you right now that dealing with a mentally ill individually is extremely difficult and at times almost impossible. Without the help of trained outside parties it’s a lost cause. Police officers know the danger of these situations first hand, as they are often harmed or shot by mentally ill individuals when trying to intervene. Incomprehensibly, services for the mentally ill are often the first on the chopping block when budget cuts are needed.

Mental illness is a tragedy that hits people indiscriminately. Like cancer, we can do little to control its onset, but we can treat it if we are willing to put the resources in the right place. We can also decide that the freedom to buy handguns is simply too great a societal risk to allow to occur with such ease. Why do mentally ill people have such easy access to handguns and semi-automatic weapons? Because we all do. I don’t advocate taking everyone’s guns away, but we need more limits. Something has to give and the mentally ill are not going away: mental illness affects one in 100 people, which means that in Seattle, there could be 6,000 people suffering here alone. And all of them have access to handguns. Will we keep the conversation going or will it just be another unpreventable tragedy until it happens again in another year?

New Pictures on the Site

I know there are a few of you who read this blog when I publish once every couple of weeks. Astute people that you are, you’ll have noticed that the header has changed. In keeping with my predilection to spend more time figuring out what a published writer must do rather than actually writing, I recently got some head shots taken. Now, after spending hours trying to wrangle wordpress, I can sit down and write (and procrastinate) again. I never look like this in real life, so I’m not sure it’ll acquaint you with me any more than my words, but it’s what the publishing gods say I must do. (Sigh…….well….truly, it was fun to get dressed up.)

Thanks for reading.

Charis Brice, over at chalk ballerina photography helped me feel at ease staring at the camera, and at the trees out her window. If you’re in Seattle, and need pictures…

We All Want to Belong

Mom has been coming over to my house on Fridays for awhile now. She usually she just sits on the couch and sips her tea and writes inscrutable things in magazines and catalogs while the kids play. Every now and then she’ll pipe up. “I bought Spencer a potty. He’s old enough to use one now.” Or, “The gluten free pasta is really what he needs. I’ll send some.” Sometimes she’ll take a bath or a nap.  And she always empties the bathroom trash.

A few weeks ago the sun was shining, and when that happens in the Pacific Northwest, you get outside, stat. Quinn and Spencer and I were weeding while Mom sat on the couch. Quinn was filling up her watering can and watering the flowers and the weeds both. Spencer had a child-sized rake that he pulled along behind him as he followed me from one garden bed to another. Mom came out the door while we were working on the strawberry patch. First she sat in one of the Adirondack chairs with her eyes closed. Then she got up and walked around the perimeter of the yard. After watching for a few minutes I went back to work, building my pile of those blasted shot-weeds that are trying to conquer everything. Next thing I knew Mom had made her way to the shed, found the aerator, and started working on the lower section of the lawn. After a few rows she took off her sweater, and it was just the family, doing yard work together.

For some reason, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Besides the  professional looking white blouse, she looked like anyone doing yard work in her jeans and the rain boots. Wisps of hair fell out of her ponytail and into her face, and she kept tucking them behind her ear in between the step and pull of the aerator. She was totally devoted to her task and she wasn’t going to stop no matter how many times I told her she didn’t have to do it. She wouldn’t stop because she wanted to help, just like she wants to take out the trash and “buy” us food. She wants to be part of our lives, to make a contribution. To feel valued and part of something bigger than herself. Just like everyone.

As I watched Mom working alongside us, smiling in the sun, I was struck by what a crucial difference these Fridays make in her life.  I though about my decision not to go back to India but to come here and start to rebuild our relationship. For so many years after making the choice to move to Seattle I berated myself for being cowardly, for choosing the “easy” life over the sacrificial life in the slums of Kolkata. Even though I felt guilty about it for years, times like these cement the thought that maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t my fear or selfishness. Maybe it was just the right thing to do, out of many good options. Maybe it’s what I needed. And what Mom needed too.

Under the Leopard Umbrella

No one, I’m sure, thinks I could possibly be neutral about the topic of Blue Like Jazz. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the project from the get-go.

I saw the final cut last Thursday and was so impressed with the way they pulled everything together. With the voice-overs added, the storyline was vastly improved and I came away feeling I could understand, even relate to, Don’s story of rejecting and then embracing his faith. And man, it was funny. Even the second time.

I love the movie, and I love the way Penny is portrayed. I am nowhere near that virtuous, but it was really cool to see a character with so much heart and passion for worthy causes, and for people, too. I feel super honored that Don and Steve and Ben put God’s heart for justice in a character named after me.

I got the chance to see Don for a few minutes before the film began and we even snapped a photo. I was laughing hard at the ridiculousness of it all…I would make a terrible actress. But the picture came out alright. I may just put it on my desk next to the photo of Don and I and two friends protesting the run-up to the war on Iraq. Don and Penny, Ten Year Later.

After the screening Steve Taylor told us that without a great turnout opening weekend it will not make it into more locations the following week. So if you have any inclination to go, buy your tickets for April 13th. You won’t be disappointed. And come back and tell me what you think. I’ll be attending the premiere in Portland, and maybe even tweeting it. We’ll see, I may be starstruck the entire time, incapable of coherent speech, never mind tweets.

Why I Follow Jesus

“If the history of Israel teaches us anything, it’s that history is a dialogue between God and free, responsible persons, and that God keeps summoning us again to empower the poor and needy and to nurture justice.”

– Ron SIder (Afterword to The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World, Heather Zydek, ed.)

Chronicling the tenuous grip of love.