Today I write with sadness as I hear more news from friends and family in the U.S. about the tragic school shooting in Connecticut. I cannot imagine the grief engulfing the loved ones of the victims, and indeed the entire community of Newtown. Shira and I extend our deep condolences to everyone impacted by this terrible event.
The enormous publicity about this event demands that we as disability advocates monitor the messages conveyed by the media about disabilities, and correct any that inaccurately portray people with either neurological disabilities or mental illness. Media reports suggest the shooter in this case may have carried both diagnoses.
Below I share with you reflections on this moment from Jo Ann Simons, advisor to our foundation and frequent blogger in this space. She also leads an educational institution and so is especially attuned to the fears we all have for the safety of our schools and our schoolchildren.
Let us honor the victims by forcing a national conversation on mental illness that is thoughtful, well-informed, and dedicated to preventing future tragedies.
Forced to Listen
By Jo Ann Simons, Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation; President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers
The television at my home– and in homes throughout the world– has been tuned into the nonstop coverage of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I feel it is my duty to listen to the news of the latest investigation of this horrific crime and watch the tributes to the victims. Somehow I feel like I am paying my respects, but mostly I am trying to comfort myself. I am trying to make sense of the senseless. I am trying to convince myself that my children are safe, our students and clients are safe, I am safe, and my country is safe. I am rationalizing that the likelihood of this kind of horrific crime occurring again is unlikely.
I am kidding myself. These kind of mass shootings are becoming more frequent and yet we have done nothing to reduce the availability of automatic weapons.
But this time something has happened. We have begun a discussion about mental illness, Asperger’s and autism. It has been thoughtful and meaningful. The world is learning what we already know: people with autism and Asperger’s are not prone to violence. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder, present from childhood. People with diagnoses on what is called the “autism spectrum” demonstrate compassion and empathy. They are wonderful sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. They live, play, learn and work successfully among us. In fact, one of the Sandy Hook children had autism and she was slaughtered with her aide and special education teacher.
We have also learned that mental illness usually develops in the late teen or early adult years, although it sometimes appears in childhood. Societal stigmas and the gaping lack of services make it difficult to identify and even more difficult to treat. Families feel hopeless and desperate and are often forced to turn to the only remedy available: the criminal justice system. In this system mental illness typically goes undiagnosed and almost always untreated.
A national discussion has begun and people who have never been part of it before are showing up to educate us. Doctors Sanjay Gupta and Mehmet Oz have begun teaching us about the minds of people with mental illness and about distinguishing mental illness from autism. They and many others are calling out to rebuild our mental health system.
Are we listening?
–Jo Ann Simons