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What does blame accomplish? (01/12/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

Why are we so quick to lay blame for tragic actions such as the alleged Jared Loughner shooting of eighteen people, wounding a member of Congress and killing a federal judge and five others?

The New York Times and similar news media blame conservative talk show hostsí ďharsh political rhetoric,Ē and lack of gun control laws (even though gun control laws donít seem to make New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago any safer places). A Slate.com article blames drugs. Liberal bloggers blame Sarah Palin. Iíve read that maybe Arizonans are at fault.

How about this? Jared Loughner is at fault. If witnesses are correct, and he did shoot all those people, there canít be much of an argument that the man is at fault.

But it appears he is mentally ill. We understand so little about mental illness, which is still so shrouded in secrecy and mystery that our society really doesnít know how to deal with the mentally ill who become violent, except to give them a trial and send them away. Like John Hinkley Jr., like Jeffrey Dahmer, like Mark David Chapman, like Sirhan Sirhan, like thousands of mentally ill people whose version of reality is so skewed it sets their moral compass spinning out of control.

But there must be someone to blame, right, for not addressing this manís mental illness, treating him, curing him so this tragedy would never have happened? How about his parents? How about his teachers, especially at the community college he attended where it is reported that he actedÖwellÖcrazy? How about the schoolís administration, which was finally convinced to suspend him?

The reality is that none of us knows the heart of another completely. Even twins have secrets from each other. Wives donít know their husbands are having an affair. Husbands donít know their wives have a gambling problem that will soon ruin the family. Parents donít know their children are on drugs or having unprotected sex.

Blame his parents? Read the article written by Dylan Kleboldís (Columbine killings) mother, Susan, in the O magazine on October 13, 2009 (go to Oprah.com). A parent might see a child is unhappy, but what parent would immediately jump to the conclusion that her child has the makings of a mass murderer? The Klebolds were not gun owners, either.

Blame his teachers? Teachers are not mind readers, nor are they psychologists. Troublemakers make their lives miserable. It would be nice if teachers could tell which students are mentally ill and which are just bored and like to make trouble. But mental illness doesnít always present itself as disruptive, either.

An article in Slate.com by Vaughn Bell tries to make a case that it isnít mental illness that makes some people violent, but taking drugs, including alcohol. Why do people take drugs? Perhaps because they imagine that the drugs will make them feel better? Vaughn denies that mental illness may contribute to such violent outbreaks, and cites scientific evidence to back it up. But the other side cites police evidence to prove that mental illness often goes hand-in-hand with acts of violence and mayhem. Certainly any Winona cop can tell you that violence and closing time at the bars go together. But not all drinkers become violent. Not all people who are mentally ill become violent.

We need to know more about the relationship between violent action and mental illness. We need to drag mental illness out of the dark ages and into the light of knowledge. Parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, politicians, all of us need to know more. As it is, some people with mental illness are lucky enough to be able to control their illness through drugs and counseling. But others cannot find relief in available medical treatments. And some, like some cancer patients, will succumb to their illness.

The problem is that while a person with cancer or heart disease rarely causes the death of others, some with mental illness not only kill themselves, but, as we see too often, others who happen to be in their path.

So before we rush to blame, letís understand that blame doesnít get us any closer to a solution to the problem, and blame will not save the lives of those unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in the future. Cancer used to be something people just didnít talk about. Bringing it out into the open has helped us shed light on some of its causes and led us to ever better treatment. We should do the same with mental illness. 


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