Life after Aurora
By Dr. Mark Ragins Denver Post Op Ed July 27, 2012
Murders – especially random mass murders – are frightening. And when
we’re frightened, we look for explanations that will restore some sense
of safety to the world. That’s one reason so many people are speculating
about whether James Holmes, the suspect in Friday’s horrific Colorado
shootings, is mentally ill.
In some ways it would be reassuring to find out that he is. Then we
could begin figuring out new ways to keep ourselves safe. Some people
would argue for better outreach to the mentally ill, for providing more
and better mental health services or strengthening involuntary
commitment laws. We would have something to blame and something to do to
prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
But those things wouldn’t necessarily help.
I’m a psychiatrist who has spent my life working with people who have
severe mental illnesses, and murder is no more sensible in my world than
in yours, and it’s just as frightening. Murder is unpredictable,
extraordinarily rare and shocking. That’s as true in those with mental
illness as it is in those without it.
I know about this firsthand. Twenty-three years ago my closest friend at
work, a social worker named Robbyn Panitch, was murdered by a homeless
man with schizophrenia whom she was trying to help.
It doesn’t help to know that statistically, those with mental illness
are no more likely than anyone else to commit violent crimes, and that
they’re more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Or that, although
it sometimes seems like we’re in the midst of a murder epidemic, in fact
violent crime has dropped dramatically across the nation in the last 20
Those things may be true, but as we just saw in Colorado, horrible
things still happen. And the media are more effective than ever at
linking the billions of humans in the world, so we all have front-row
seats at these stunningly rare events.
Whether or not the overwhelming violence in Colorado had anything to do
with mental illness, the healthiest approach to dealing with the fear is
the one we teach to rape victims. We have to acknowledge that there is
violence in the world and that we can never be truly safe. We shouldn’t
be reckless, and we can take precautions, but the chance of encountering
violence can’t be completely removed.
But if we hide away and don’t go on with life, then we let fear win.
That’s the message that should be sent now by public officials and
mental health professionals alike. This isn’t the time to lobby for more
money. It’s the time to promote resilience. We all need healing and
acceptance, forgiveness and community.
When we’re a little calmer, it might be reasonable to ask whether our
current funding levels for mental health or our current gun laws or our
current mental health services on college campuses are effective or not.
But we have to examine these issues knowing two things: that nothing can
make us truly safe, and that such large-scale violence is extremely
rare. Policies that grow out of fear aren’t always rational, and they
can have unintended consequences.
The way to actually be safer and less frightened is not to separate and
hide; it’s to reach out to one another and take care of one another.
Remember the spirit of community right after Sept. 11 or after Hurricane
Katrina? People came together and offered prayers, practical help and
sympathy. Those things made us feel better.
If we don’t go see “The Dark Knight Rises” or the next blockbuster movie
premiere, or if we don’t let the next “loner” into college or avoid him,
we’ll be giving in to our fears instead of facing them and learning to
live with them.
In the end, there’s one way to make it through this: together.
Mark Ragins is director at the Village, a program of Mental Health
America of Los Angeles.