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Why mental illness can be a red herring [Commentary]

Whenever yet another mass shooting happens, I think the only thing that gets analyzed more than gun laws is the issue of mental illness.

In the most recent, deadly attack on the Washington Navy Yard, the suspect was, sadly, once again described as a mentally ill man.

An acquaintance of Aaron Alexis told The Washington Post he "seemed harmless, if really awkward… He was like a barbershop conspiracy theorist."

Later, however, Alexis was allegedly hearing voices and had been treated by the Veterans Administration for mental problems.

I think what's easy to do in cases like this - the Aurora, Colo., or Newtown, Conn., shootings, for example - is to believe the killer is strange and different because they have now been labeled as "mentally ill."

But obviously, the vast majority of mentally ill people do not go on murderous rampages, break the law or do something really destructive.

About 58 million Americans "experience a mental disorder in a given year," according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Americans spent at least $34 billion for psychiatric drugs in 2010, according to the American Psychological Association.

Nevertheless, when someone in the media is portrayed as mentally ill, I think we put them in a separate box that we can then push away or dismiss.

"Oh, they're crazy; that's why they shot those people," we might say. Or, "He's delusional" or "They were schizophrenic."

In a way, making the diagnosis lets us avoid dealing with the complexity of a situation.

My sister was once in graduate school for clinical psychology, a field that did not exactly work out for her.

In one of her classes, the students had to watch a video about some relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and then diagnose them with a mental disorder.

After the video, my sister said the family just seemed weird, but happy with their lives.

"There's nothing wrong with them. They're just strange," she told the professor.

But her teacher insisted they had a mental illness, and the students were supposed to figure out what it was.

Long story short, my sister didn't quite "make it" as a clinical psychologist.

With mass shootings and crimes continuing to make headlines, I can only imagine there's a lot more pressure on medical professionals to diagnose people - probably as much as there is on gun distributors to do thorough background checks or keep tabs on their customers.

Everyone nowadays expects a diagnosis and a cure, or at least a treatment - a simple answer.

My sister's story reminds me of one of my favorite books in the Bible (and I guess in general): Ecclesiastes.

It's best known for lines like, "To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die," etc.

Overall, though, the book is usually considered a total downer. The writer calls everything "futile," says "all [man's] days are pains" and suggests it's better to be already dead than alive, although it would have been best to not have been born at all.

I love this text, though, because it's brutally honest. It's not upbeat and "inspirational," or preachy and reprimanding.

It's like a guy sitting next to you at a bar saying, "Yeah, life is crazy." It's like someone commiserating with you, because sometimes life really is just unfair and everything seems pointless.

If the writer of Ecclesiastes was a regular person alive today, he would probably be put on antidepressants and be reminded that there is also "a time for therapy."

Maybe he never even would have written what became one of the most famous texts of all time.

I think it's easier to make things seem nice and comprehensible than to deal with complexity.

The shooter at the Navy Yard might have been mentally ill. Or he may have been just "a barbershop conspiracy theorist," just another strange person.

Either way, I don't think it really explains what drove him to become a killer. Some things in life just don't make sense.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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