What we should fear after Aurora

Murders, especially random mass murders, are frightening. And when we're frightened, we look for explanations to restore some sense of safety to the world. That's one reason so many people have speculated about whether James Holmes, the man formally charged Monday in the 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, more and better mental-health services, or stronger 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 have spent my life working with people who have severe mental illnesses, and murder is no more sensible in my world than in yours. Murder is unpredictable, very rare, and shocking. That's as true in those with mental illness as 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.

The Los Angeles Department of Mental Health has employed thousands and served hundreds of thousands. As far as I know, Robbyn is the only staff member murdered by a client. But that doesn't make her killing any less horrible or frightening. My friend is still dead.

It doesn't help to know that the mentally ill are not more likely to commit violent crimes, or that they're more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Or that, although it sometimes seems as if we're in the midst of a murder epidemic, murder and other violent crimes have dropped dramatically across the nation over the last 20 years.

That may be true, but as we saw in Colorado, horrible things still happen. And the media are more effective than ever at giving us front-row seats to these rare events.

Whether or not the violence in Colorado had anything to do with mental illness, we have to acknowledge that there is violence in the world and that we can never be truly safe. We can take precautions, but the chance of encountering violence can't be completely removed.

But if we hide and don't go on with life, we let fear win. That's the message that should be sent by officials and mental-health professionals. This isn't the time to lobby for more money. It's the time to promote resilience. We all need healing, acceptance, forgiveness, and community.

When we're a little calmer, it might be reasonable to ask whether our gun laws or mental-health services are effective. But we have to examine these issues knowing two things: Nothing can make us completely safe, and large-scale violence is extremely rare.

Policies that grow out of fear aren't always rational, and they can have unintended consequences. After my friend Robbyn died, walls of bulletproof glass were erected at mental-health clinics. Metal detectors were installed and security guards hired. I doubt these things made anyone safer, but they did put barriers between mental-health workers and their clients, between us and the work we love.

When we're frightened, our natural response is to hunker down. We feel the need to separate ourselves from danger.

The way to actually be safer and less frightened is not to separate and hide; it's to reach out to and take care of one another. Remember the spirit of community right after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? People came together and offered prayers, help, and sympathy. Those things made us feel better.

If we don't go see The Dark Knight Rises or the next blockbuster, if we don't let the next "loner" into college, we'll be giving in to our fears instead of facing them and learning to live with them. I would have been doing the same thing after Robbyn's death if I hadn't returned to working with homeless, mentally ill people.

In the end, there's one way to make it through this: together.

 

Mark Ragins is a psychiatrist and medical director at the Village, a program of Mental Health America of Los Angeles. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.