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Don’t confuse mental illness with evil incarnate

by Melinda Henneberger

The Washington Post

As a baby reporter in Texas, I covered what we euphemistically called mental health services in the state. These “services,” reserved for the dangerously ill, involved brief, groggy hospital stays followed up with a handshake, script for enough pills to stun a moose, and best wishes: See you soon!

Unless something worse happened, the patients were bound to be back. And just as surely, whenever I’d return to the newsroom after a trip to one of the state-run mental hospitals, my editor could be counted on to joke, “You didn’t catch anything while you were there, did you?” Schizophrenia cooties, I guess he meant, or bipolar bugs.

The national conversation since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut., has reminded me of that guy, whose fear of mental illness may or may not have been treatable. And our still under-informed, over-anxious understanding of mental illness — or of any cognitive or neurological difference, for that matter — suggests that we haven’t come very far in the decades since he snickered about depression being contagious.

The shooter was “known to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome,” cable anchors tell us, as if that might explain a child-killing spree. But there is no link — none — between violence and this high-functioning form of autism.

And though you might not know it from some of the coverage, Asperger’s isn’t a mental illness at all, it’s a developmental disorder. The young adults I know with Asperger’s are all smart and sweet, and simply had to work harder to learn the social cues that came effortlessly to their peers. When one of them got into a top college a few years ago, his mom fantasized about sharing the news with every kid who was ever mean to him in middle school: “Have fun at DeVry!” Because the fact is, young people with Asperger’s are far more likely to be bullied than to do any bullying.

I’m equally chary of vague reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, “had some kind of personality disorder” and was “on some kind of medication.”

Maybe he did and was, but there is no medication that treats Asperger’s itself, and fears that antidepressants can set off killing sprees are mistaken: “There’s no evidence to support that,” said Bernard Vittone, director of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression. “Even the evidence linking it to suicide in children and young people is shaky, and I don’t know of any evidence linking violence in general to antidepressants.”

Some of our other most beloved biases have come out to play, too, in the days since Lanza opened fire: How quick we are to blame the slain mother of the kid gone horribly wrong. If you’ve had to sleep by your friendless grown son’s door, to be there to calm his fears, then go ahead and judge Nancy Lanza’s decision to take her son to a shooting range in a desperate attempt to connect with him.

Somehow, in painful moments like this, even what we do know seems to slip away from us — so we perpetually wonder how such a thing could have happened in a community one and all regarded as safe, as if being “close knit” or “low crime” had anything to do with it.

TV always seems to throw a story like this one in the blender, so that what comes out is indistinguishable from the last horror, or the one before that, and the result weirdly numbing.

When we read some of the smaller details, though — about the kid who said he wouldn’t have anybody to play with now that his sister had died, or the boy who said he knew karate and could save the others — we feel the enormity of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, and we cry that we won’t stand for it.

Only, then what? I hope we won’t waste too much time arguing over whether gun control, or better mental health treatment, or pushing back against violent video games is the proper place to start; in my mind, the answer is all of the above.

If guns alone — or even guns plus lousy-to-nonexistent mental health services — were the entire problem, why were no little red schoolhouses fired on in the Wild West, where everyone was armed and mental illness completely untreated?

There are pieces of this problem strewn across the political spectrum: The left is correct that actually, guns do kill people. But the right has a point, too, about the “culture of death,” in the language of John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life.”

And if we haven’t glorified even mass shootings and their perpetrators, then why does one shooter after another show up dressed all in black, like an anti-hero ready for his big finale?

Struggling to understand, we insist on referring to the actions of people who must be desperately sick as evil incarnate.

“Evil visited this community today,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy.

“No set of laws can eliminate evil from the world,” President Barack Obama told the grieving.

A well person doesn’t shoot a bunch of 6-year-olds, though, and while I believe in evil, from a Christian perspective, sin involves free will, which I’m not sure someone who acted as Lanza did was in any shape to exercise. Saying so is popularly seen as “excusing” such horrific acts, though it doesn’t.

Calling illness by its modern name is important because we have so much hard work to do, on multiple fronts, that we can’t afford to set off in the wrong century.

Melinda Henneberger is a political commentator.