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The mystery that is mental illness (07/31/2011)
By Frances Edstrom

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people, most of them teenagers and young adults at a summer camp. His lawyers are expected to ask the courts to certify that Breivik is insane.

On August 8, 2011, Brian Jost will speak in Winona on his life with bipolar disorder, saying that ďDespite having to deal with a psychiatric disorder, recovery is possible, and a happy, productive and meaningful life is possible.Ē

And there we have it, the two sides of the mental illness coin. Many who suffer with psychiatric disorders do feel their lives are like a coin toss: Will I be able to control this illness? Or am I doomed to be a victim of it? That is, if in their times of rational thought they can see that they are ill. Their families also suffer, often victims themselves of the irrational whirlwind that is their loved one, or during times of stability, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and always hoping that the illness will not lead to violence ó suicide or homicide.

Itís not only the mentally ill and their families who struggle with understanding the illness and is effects. Society has a difficult time understanding that actions, like Breivikís, that seem to be proof of the basest evil in man, may be caused by an illness. We simply donít understand what could lead a person to massacre innocents, other than evil, because we try to understand such actions under a rubric of rational thought, and mental illness often destroys rationality.

Because we donít understand mental illness, we very often donít recognize its signs unless they are super obvious. And because we donít, we donít get medical help for the mentally ill. If only all those who are bipolar would get the help that Brian Jost did.

Breivikís ex-stepmother described him as well-behaved and intelligent. I read an essay by Susan Klebold, whose son, Dylan, was one of the perpetrators of the Columbine shootings, in a November 2009 issue of Oprahís ďOĒ magazine. She described being puzzled and concerned about her sonís unhappiness, the changes that occurred in his transition from a happy and successful child to a remote teenager who ran with a group of kids in high school who affected black trench coats as a sign of their alienation. But it didnít occur to her, or to his teachers and school counselors, that Dylan could commit homicide and suicide.

I imagine every parent of a mentally ill person who commits suicide thanks God that their son or daughter did not, as Breivik and Klebold did, visit his illness on innocents as well as himself.

Susan Klebold wrote, ďIn raising Dylan, I taught him how to protect himself from a host of dangers: lightning, snake bites, head injuries, skin cancer, smoking, drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, reckless driving, even carbon monoxide poisoning. It never occurred to me that the gravest dangeróto him and, as it turned out, to so many othersómight come from within. Most of us do not see suicidal thinking as the health threat that it is. We are not trained to identify it in others, to help others appropriately, or to respond in a healthy way if we have these feelings ourselves.Ē

Brian Jostís appearance in Winona to speak about his struggles with mental health and his path to good mental health is an attempt to educate us about mental illness. It is something we need. Rather than categorizing actions such as Breivikís or Kleboldís in terms of political or religious extremism or evil, we should be thinking of them as challenges to society to understand, identify and treat mental illness. 


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