Like most people, I imagine, I am haunted by the chilling mug shot of Jared Loughner, the man accused of gunning down Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and so many others in Arizona. The crazed look in his eyes. The smirk that seems to convey utter disregard for the horrors he is alleged to have unleashed. Haunting, right? Clearly, I am not alone in my visceral reaction to this image, but I must confess this picture impacts me in another way that I suspect the average viewer wouldn't even consider--one that has nothing to do with the mug shot, itself, and everything to do with the label implicitly attached to it: mentally ill.
Whether the tag is accurate or not--and the experts suggest it probably is--Loughner's name is likely to be tied forever more to mental illness; his face, likely to be a timeless portrait of psychological ills. And as a guy whose name and face have become increasingly associated with mental health challenges, I find myself worried about this. Very worried.
For the record, I never set out to be a poster boy for mental illness. On the contrary; I spent years doing everything in my power to ensure that no one would ever know my secret--that I was battling obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe that I could barely leave my house. I spent many thousands of dollars paying for therapy out of my own pocket, to avoid leaving a paper trail. I parked my car blocks from my therapists' offices, to minimize the chances of being spotted by anyone I knew. I made excuse after excuse about my absences. I lied to just about everyone around me. All this I did to prevent the unthinkable: being identified as mentally ill.
Stigma paralyzed me in those days. In fact, it nearly kept me from getting the treatment that would save my life. I thought about this--a lot--years later, when I contemplated the pros and cons of going public with my story. Ultimately, it was the opportunity to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental illness that tipped my decision in favor of writing and publishing my memoir. I knew that, as a successful radio news anchor, I had the chance to give a face (and a voice) to mental illness that defied common perceptions.
Today my life is an open book (two of them, actually). I am privileged to speak on behalf of a number of leading mental health organizations and play a small role in fighting stigma. It's my greatest hope that people struggling with mental illness will recognize themselves in my story, along with those of so many other everyday folk--doctors, accountants, construction workers, teachers, etc.--who are talking openly about their inner battles and recovery. And nothing brings me more satisfaction than hearing from others in mental health recovery that one my books or talks has helped them take that first, seemingly impossible step toward getting treatment.
So, back to Jared Loughner. I get why his name is going to dominate the mental health discussion for the foreseeable future. I also know that's not necessarily a bad thing. The mere fact that we're having a new national dialogue about mental illness is encouraging, and Loughner's story is likely to shine a powerful spotlight on some of the gaping holes in our mental health care system and the many walls blocking access to it.
What worries me is not that Loughner's mug will become a face of mental illness, but rather that it will become the face. Should the latter happen, I fear far too many would-be treatment seekers will be scared away. Would I have been, all those years ago? Probably. Given my fixation with the potential consequences of being labeled mentally ill, I likely would have been horrified by conversations connecting the term with someone like Loughner. Stigma can be an almost unfathomable deterrent and has been throughout history. (For some great historical perspective, see Dr. Stephen Hinshaw's The Mark of Shame.)
So what's the answer? As far as I'm concerned, it's context. Ironic, I suppose, that a guy who makes his living as a commercial newscaster--part of the 24/7 news machine--is calling for context, something we in the media are often accused of failing to provide, but I'm pretty sure that context is just what is most needed right now. Yes, let's talk about the role that mental illness might have played in the Arizona shootings. BUT, let's also avoid the temptation to connect dots that the experts tell us should not routinely be connected--namely those representing mental illness and violence.
Eduardo Vega is the executive director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco and has family living in Tucson. In a piece he recently wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle, Vega summed up my own thoughts quite eloquently:
"It is impossible to know if the right mental health services at the right time and place could have averted the Tucson tragedy. But it is certain that promoting false views about mental health conditions prevent our citizens from getting what they need to survive personal challenges and tragedy and further impede the health of our communities."
From everything I've read and heard about Gabrielle Giffords, she has been a tireless advocate for mental health. How better to honor her courageous recovery than to assure that the man accused of opening fire on her does not become a deterrent to the mental health care she has fought so hard to protect. To that end, let's all make sure that Jared Loughner's face becomes but one of a sweeping montage we associate with this all-too-stigma-charged thing we call mental illness.
My heart goes out to all the victims of the Tucson tragedy, and I pray that the stigma surrounding it won't create new, hidden ones.