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Renee Garfinkel Ph.D.

Misfortune Comes In Threes

Violent death In Washington, DC

We pay attention to things that come in threes:

Three musketeers.

Three little pigs.

Three wise men.

A cluster of three-in-a-row attracts our attention and invites us to inquire further. We try to find meaning and message in the grouping.

America recently witnessed three acts of violence in the heart of our nation’s capital. They occurred just days apart, and resulted in the violent deaths of 3 mentally ill individuals along with dozens of other victims. The first was a massacre at the Washington Navy Yard, just a stone’s throw from the Congress. Paranoid delusions drove Aaron Alexis to mass murder that day.

Days later, John Constantino, who had a long history of mental illness, burned himself to death on the Mall, the grassy front yard of official Washington, DC, and Miriam Carey, suffering from psychotic post-partum depression, drove her car into the White House fence and on a wild chase down Pennsylvania Avenue, to meet her death by police. Ms. Carey’s one-year-old baby survived unharmed in the back seat…a chilling finale to this three-act drama.

Now, I am not superstitious, and won’t suggest that misfortunes come in threes—nor is it unusual for people with paranoid ideas to focus on a prominent source of power. God, the king, the president and aliens are all common ideas of reference for the seriously mentally ill. So perhaps the timing of these violent events, and their location, are nothing more than co-incidence.

But let us not forget that sometimes people with mental illness are particularly influenced by the emotional tenor of the times. Like artists (with whom they often share a family connection), people with mental illness can be especially sensitive, open and reactive to the zeitgeist, the emotional, social and political tenor of their time and place. And our zeitgeist is toxic.

Not only is the country’s political leadership dysfunctional, it has set a grim tone of hostility and contempt for one another. Tuning in to the news, we are served video images of politicians (Senator Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin) gleefully manipulating veterans, urging them to remove government property. When Palin egged the veterans and others on to move government barriers to the front of the White House, police in riot gear were needed to keep the crowd from becoming a mob. Cynicism and disrespect made headlines.

The anger and distrust at the political center emanate and reverberate through the media and the Internet. In the echo chamber dysfunction begets aggression, distrust vitriol and the pressure increases. The most vulnerable among us implode, hurting others in the process.

The deaths on the Mall don’t have to be meaningless tragedies. They don’t have to have died in vain. We can bring meaning to their lives and their deaths by hearing their twofold message:

One is a cry for better and more compassionate care for the mentally ill. The other is the urgent need to restore civility and respect to our political discourse.