Marjorie L. Baldwin Ph.D.

Beyond Schizophrenia

Police and Guns are Not the Real Problems

More lives will be lost until we deal with the real goblins that threaten us.

Posted Oct 25, 2017

One Halloween my 3-year-old grandson received a pair of monster slippers from his maternal grandparents. When my daughter-in-law put the slippers on his feet, he immediately insisted she take them off. He didn’t like to look at them. They were “too, too scary.”

As adults, we are not so different. When faced with serious problems, we often grasp for simple explanations, and seemingly straightforward solutions. The bigger picture, with problems that are much more difficult to resolve, may be just “too, too scary” to face. For example:

When my son first exhibited the prodromal signs of schizophrenia, mental illness never crossed my mind. During a weekend visit home in the fall of his sophomore year at college, he talked nonstop. The words fit together in sentences, but the sentences didn’t fit together into coherent thoughts. When he finally finished rambling, I was not sure what he had said, if anything at all. But I told myself that he was just excited about all the new ideas he was being exposed to at the university.

When the incessant talking gave way to emotional outbursts, erratic behavior, and verbal abuse, it was no longer possible to find an innocent explanation. I recalled all the warnings about behavioral changes associated with illicit drug use, all the signs indicating that your teenager is using drugs. I assumed that he was experimenting with marijuana, cocaine, or something worse. I confronted him about the dangers of drugs, and lectured him about the permanent effects that drug use could have on his brain. I encouraged him to seek help, to just say no. Still, mental illness never crossed my mind. 

When he was finally diagnosed with schizophrenia in a hospital emergency room, I was stunned. I focused on the details: how long would he be in the hospital, what medications was he taking, when could he go back to school. “The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” [1] The reality, that my son had a serious mental illness, that he might never recover, that our lives had changed forever, was just too enormous to face at once. It was “too, too scary.”

The response is often similar when we, as citizens, are confronted with a crisis that reveals the enormity of problems we face. We tend to distract ourselves with (relatively) smaller issues, or (only) parts of the problem. We grasp at the quick fix, the straightforward solution. Is it because the underlying issues are too overwhelming to face? For example:

A judge in St. Louis recently found Jason Stockley, an ex-police officer, not guilty in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. In the aftermath of the verdict, more than 80 people were arrested, and nine police officers wounded, in four nights of violent protests.

It is a tragedy whenever any person, black, or white, or brown, is killed. But, by looking close up at this case, are we being distracted from the bigger picture? In 2016,

  • 135 police officers were killed in the line of duty [2]   
  • 233 black people were shot and killed by police [3]
  • 7,881 black people were murdered in the U.S. overall [4]
  • 762 people were murdered in Chicago alone. The vast majority of victims were young black men, and the vast majority of killings were gang-related. [5]
Kaique Roche/Pexels
Source: Kaique Roche/Pexels

Less than 3 percent of black homicide victims in 2016 were killed by police, yet they seem to get much more attention from the media and protesters than the greater number of killings in our inner cities that do not involve police officers. Why? Is it because the problem of gang violence on the South Side of Chicago is too scary to face?   

Similarly, whenever there is a mass shooting such as occurred in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, the media and politicians immediately gravitate to a debate over stricter gun control laws. In the current iteration of the debate, the demand is that bump fire stocks be banned. (Bump stocks are used to modify a semi-automatic weapon so that it fires more rapidly.) Legislation banning the bump stocks was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. 

The Las Vegas shooting is a terrible tragedy that demands a response. There seems to be no good reason why a U.S. citizen needs a rapid-firing semi-automatic weapon to defend himself, so the gun control law may pass. But, by focusing on the problem of mass shootings and relatively narrow gun control laws, are we being distracted from the bigger picture?

  • In 2016, 71 persons were killed in mass shootings in the U.S. [6]
  • Each year, nearly 43,000 persons in the U.S. commit suicide. Between 1999 and 2014, the U.S. suicide rate increased by 24 percent. [7]
  • In each year, 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder at the time of their death. More than one in five persons who commit suicide are veterans. Only half of those who commit suicide use a gun. [8]

A ban on bump stocks will do nothing to reduce deaths by suicide, and little or nothing to reduce the overall homicide rate.

Pixabay/CCO
Source: Pixabay/CCO

A few weeks ago I visited my grandson (now age 9) in Montana. Nearby forest fires had made the air too smoky to be outdoors for long, so he read aloud to me from one of his favorite books, The Land of Stories.[9] In the Land of Stories, trolls and goblins roamed the forests, where they captured humans to serve as slaves. The fairies had built walls to contain the evil creatures, but the trolls and goblins built tunnels underneath, and escaped. The fairies, distracted by the trial of a youngster for a minor infraction, were unaware that the trolls and goblins were once again a threat. The book poses a question: Were the fairies deliberately distracting themselves with a relatively small problem, so they would not have to address the larger problem (of rampaging trolls and goblins)?

It’s a good question to ask ourselves: Are we deliberately distracting ourselves with the problem of police brutality, rather than addressing the (larger and more complex) problems of crime and drugs and failing schools in our inner cities?  By focusing so much energy on gun control legislation, are we being distracted from the epidemic of suicide, and the dysfunction in our mental health and veteran’s administration systems?

Eventually, I had to face the reality that my son was seriously ill, and summon the energy to help him recover. There was no quick fix. It was more than 10 years before he resumed a normal life. Likewise, we must eventually face the reality that our problems are larger than police and guns. We must summon the energy to fix our dysfunctional institutions: schools, mental health system, veteran’s administration. There will be no quick fix. The process will take years. But more lives will be lost until we stop distracting ourselves with parts of problems, and start dealing with the, far scarier, trolls and goblins that threaten us.

References

[1] Palahniuk, Chuck. (2003). Lullaby (e-book). New York: Knopf-Doubleday Publishing Group.

[2] Time. (2016). Retrieved from http://time.com/4619689/police-officers-killed-2016/)

[3] Washington Post. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/)

[4] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2016). Retrieved from https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/tables/expanded-homicide-data-table-1.xls

[5] Fox News. (2017). Retrieved from  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/01/01/1-chicagos-bloodiest-years-ends-with-762-homicides.html

[6] Mother Jones. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/

[7] New York Times. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html

[8] American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2016). Retrieved from https://afsp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/2016-National-Facts-Figures.pdf  

[9] Colfer, Chris. (2012). The Land of Stories: Wishing Spell. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.