Dec 17, 2012 1 Share

Distancing Through Labels

Teacher leading line of children away from Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Photo courtesy of Newtown Bee

My heart is broken. I had to call in sick for my deadline this week, because I was too sickened by the events in Newtown, CT on Friday to even begin to put words together in a readable fashion. As I finally begin to shake out the thoughts onto paper, I’m saddened even further. I found myself pouring through last summer’s columns to make sure I hadn’t written this column before. Unfortunately, these gut-wrenching emotions are not new, as I had similar feelings after the Aurora, CO shooting.

This time it’s worse. Young children lost their lives. I could not stop crying as the news unfolded on Friday afternoon. The grief of the families of the victims was inconceivable to me. And then, as details of the shooter unfolded, words like Asperger’s and autism were used, and my stomach lurched.

By pure coincidence, I happened to be in a newsroom observing an editorial meeting during the aftermath of the Aurora shooting. The staff was from diverse backgrounds, and I remember being struck by comments of relief that the shooter wasn’t a Muslim or an African-American. My immediate thought during this conversation was, “How can anything about this situation bring one relief?” And then Joe Scarborough from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” came out and asserted that the shooter was probably autistic. Suddenly I totally got what the newsroom crew was feeling.

When people do these inexplicable acts of violence, we rightly want to know why. Why would anyone ever want to hurt so many people? Why did we not see the warning signs? In an effort to answer these questions, we try to identify the shooter and assign labels that we understand as being different than the rest of us. But the problem with assigning labels to these shooters is that not all people who wear these labels are shooters. But if a shooter is assigned a label, you can bet that the others assigned that same label will suffer by association. Reporter Juan Williams infamously lost his job by stating on air that he felt nervous when he flew with Muslims. The need to disassociate ourselves with evil results in casting a shadow of evil over that population which unfortunately shares the perpetrator’s label. It is a dangerous habit we have fallen into as a society. 

Readers of this column are likely to fully understand that having autism does not make one more inclined to homicidal tendencies. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has published a statement in response to the autism allegations in the Newtown case. The devastation of this shooting has the potential to be a devastating blow to the autism community without such public outreach.

Unfortunately (and I feel I’ve overused that word in this column, but there is so much unfortunateness to this situation) having autism does not alleviate the chance of also having a mental illness. As the autism community begins to circle the wagons because of the labeling of this shooter, it is important that we not turn a blind eye to the very real issue of mental illness. Perhaps now is the time to become keenly aware of behaviors that extend beyond the autism diagnosis. Perhaps now is the time that we demand better support from our mental health professionals. There needs to be better screening and intervention. Before I started classes at my university, I was required to provide documentation from my physician that I was healthy. Upon enrolling my children in school, I was required to provide proof of immunization and dental check-ups. Why should a mental health screening not become part of our routine health maintenance and required documentation as well? Mental health issues should not be kept in shadows of stigma, and those needing help should not be hindered by the cost of seeing a mental health professional, or by some overarching diagnosis that tries to fit everything that ails you. Just as this horrible incident may have the ability to turn the gun lobby on its ear, hopefully it will have a similar impact on mental healthcare.

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mental anomaly

Right on. The emphasis should be on the "Why?" rather than the "How?".