December 20, 2012

Judith Regan invited me to be on her Sirius XM talkshow last night, as a result of my last blogpost.  I am sorry that this had to be under such tragic circumstances, but I hope my appearance adds some solace and understanding in a horrible situation.  I learned it pays to be very cautious and circumspect in answering a journalist’s questions:  however well intentioned, they might get you out over your skis in a hurry.  The journalist’s interview is probably just a few notches above a legal deposition in terms of potential hazards, and has the potential to affect many people (not to mention your reputation).  Thanks to Ms. Regan for being a congenial and broadly thinking host.  The following is a summary of what I said, with some extensions:

My Pacific Heart Blog article was my attempt to understand this awful event and to help people deal with it.  I felt very connected to those vulnerable children and adults, and the community that is grieving, and I wanted to help people touch that essential vulnerability that we all share as human beings, as well as the awareness that we are all connected, and therefore should feel some sense of responsibility for each other’s well-being, and a sense of shame and conscience that we as human beings are capable of such violence. 

(As an aside, I heard Senator Lieberman yesterday proclaim that we should somehow identify everyone who is a potential murderer.  Quite frankly, all we need to do is look in a mirror.  Anyone familiar with the human mind knows that we are all capable of violence.  We can all have violent thoughts and impulses, and also peaceful, loving ones.  I like to quote an old saying:  “In my heart, a wolf battles with a lamb; who will win?  Whichever one I feed.”  It’s time each of us starts feeding the lambs, I think.  Moreover, most acts of violence are perpetrated by people without a DSM diagnosis.  People with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetratrors.  I also heard Senator Boxer put forward a proposal to put metal detectors in all our schools, and even call up the National Guard to protect students.  That seems potentially an overreaction and traumatizing to all our children.  Perhaps our money would be better spent on gun control, and maybe even someone handing flowers to our children as they walk into school, rather than toting a rifle.)

Ms. Regan asked me to speculate about what caused this incident, and how I would treat a person with this kind of problem and I tried to avoid the question.  That would be speculation, and I don’t know.  What we do know is that Adam Lanza killed the woman who brought him into this world, and committed an atrocity in the “nest” of childhood.  Clearly he had a grievance.  I don’t know enough details about him to speculate what kind of treatment could have helped him.  This young man was apparently suffering a lot, and it’s tragic that he didn’t get the help he needed.  Our approach as psychiatrists and psychologists would be to understand the individual patient’s suffering, and then work responsibly and creatively to address that suffering.

What is the Buddhist view of suffering?  President Obama was right on Sunday.  All religions are born out of a search for meaning.  We especially look for meaning after trauma, which can shatter our illusions and our usual way of doing things.  Buddhism, and also Psychiatry and Psychology, teach us to bring mindfulness, awareness, compassion and wisdom to suffering, to understand our suffering in order to overcome it.  We can see how people create the causes and conditions for events such as the Newtown massacre.  From a Buddhist perspective, the basic “cause” of suffering is that we are deluded into thinking we are separate and independently existing entities, and don’t realize that we’re interdependent with each other, and then we act selfishly.  We cling to this vision of ourselves as separate and independently existing.

Mindful awareness can bring us to other realizations of causes of this suffering, including how we deny and avoid our essential vulnerability and fragility, and how some people are driven to exert power over others in order to feel safe.

Ms. Regan asked me to recount the stories of Angulimala and Ashoka, which are in my last blog post.  These are wonderful illustrations of how violence can transform into non-violence, and how we are all essentially capable of change.

All of the wisdom traditions tell us to bring mindfulness and awareness to our suffering.  There are specific causes and conditions in this case which are amenable to change.  For example, the presence of assault rifles, gun regulations that are arguably too lax, and a son who needed help.  And in general, a population that is increasingly less connected with each other, despite the prevalence of the internet.

We need to act out of a sense of conscience and responsibility for our actions.  My advice to all gun owners would be to really ask yourselves “what could possibly go wrong with these guns in my possession?  Do I really need so many guns?”  It’s possible to be a responsible gun owner.  We also know that the U.S.’s firearm death rate has gone down by half since 1993, when the Brady Act and then the Assault Rifle ban (which has now expired) were enacted.  However, we still have over twenty times the firearms deaths of any wealthy nation.  There are 20,000 suicides a year from guns, and 10,000 homicides.  That’s nearly 100 deaths a day from guns – and many of these are preventable.  For example, guns are the most lethal form of suicide – 90% of attempts lead to death.  Many of these suicide deaths are lonely, isolated older white men.  And many young black men are victims of street shootings.  So guns affect a wide range of people; we need to start caring more deeply about all of them.

I see in my practice and in society a fundamental disconnection, isolation, loneliness, emptiness – these are very prevalent.  Despite all our strengths in American society, we are very good at creating the causes and conditions for this disconnection.  In essence, we are creating mental illness faster than we are creating mental health.  We are relegating mental health to professionals and expensive medications when they are only part of the solution, a solution that includes family, community and a society that truly cares about each of its members.

May you all find some peace and companionship during the Holidays.

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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