Being Human in Tragedy

I don’t want to say anything about today’s events. Not specifically, anyway. I feel about them much the same way that you do, and that others do as well.

I do think its important for us to think about mental health. As a parent of three kids–aged 7, 5, and 2,–I know that my wife and I will be having conversations with the oldest (at least) to help him develop the kinds of skills we all need to grapple with and process these kinds of tragedies. Those conversations will be about us feeling our way through, trying to provide for his mental and emotional and intellectual health.

But we live in a nation where everyone doesn’t have a mom who is a trained social worker and a dad who is a PhD. We live in a nation where everyone doesn’t have access to equitable health care. We live in a nation that still struggles with providing for basic mental health care. In fact, we have little sense about what being “mentally healthy” even means.

The way we engage news like this–with a kind of “violence and suffering voyeurism”–is a signal of how inept we are at understanding mental heath issues. This kind of sensationalism promotes acts of violence and suffering from those who are already mental unhealthy. A focus on body count, on the killer, on the pain of others, all of it does little to promote anything mentally healthy.

What this coverage does is satisfy a media goal to make you feel the pain of experiencing these events as if you were more locally involved. That gets ratings because that hooks us a viewers. It turns a story about “them” into a story about “us.” That makes us grieve with the suffering, and grieving promotes our desire to connect more–to watch more news, to find out more, to talk about it more, to share about more on Twitter and Facebook. Our fixation on empathetic grief does damage to our own mental health.

I feel for others’ and the pain and sorrow they experience. I feel for the families that were shattered today. I feel for the kids–all of them–who have to confront this horror in so many different ways. But I don’t want to wallow in it.

I am a professional historian who studies groups of people that have lived through the physical, mental, and spiritual violence of systemic racism. On an almost daily basis, I practice my kind of empathy in the study of the human past. But I never let the empathy overwhelm me. I don’t let that human connection represent the end point to my study of history. I also know that the “feeling” of emotions is a wasted source of energy if we do nothing other than cry with it. It needs to be the first step in ACTION.

The long, national discussion over gun control will continue. I hope it also includes a new national discussion on mental health. I am in favor of tighter regulations when it comes to firearms in the US. But I also don’t think that will stop things like this from happening by themselves.

As a nation, we have spent almost my entire life slashing mental health services for the poor and most at risk. At the same time we have created a market-based form of social organization that means the numbers of at risk will grow. We have nearly perfected a system that assures many will go undiagnosed, untreated, and uncared for until it is too late.

We need to do something about promoting and sustaining mental health. We need to do something about providing more services for those who do not have full mental health. We need to do more, as a nation, to create lived realities where people can be full, healthy human beings.

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4 Responses to Being Human in Tragedy

  1. Wendy says:

    I don’t think that mental health should be politicized in the context of the shootout, like as if it’s akin to gun control. it could soon become another chip in the partisan, congressional game. “solving” mental health with more money and immediacy does not seem like the solution. Linking mentally ill people with shootouts also stigmatizes the issue further.

  2. A tragedy that involves the deaths of 20 school children begs an explanation, a pat answer that will prevent this from happening again. That’s not surprising. As a culture, we are spoon fed that notion by politicians eager to win our vote and an entertainment industry that thrives on providing a satisfying emotional climax in the length of a TV show or feature film. Reality is not that simple. They are called “senseless tragedies” for a reason. Yet, there are patterns in the long and sordid history of such events. Yesterday, I Interviewed science and psychology journalist Rebecca Coffey whose work includes the study of slaughter-style killings in U.S. public schools. She offers some valuable insights into what parents can do to protect their children and help them cope with the shocking news of events like the recent Newtown shootings. Tomas, you and the readers of your blog may find this article worthwhile. http://raulramosysanchez.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-school-shooters-in-our-midst.html

  3. profe says:

    Thanks for the comments, Wendy. The problem is, when we see acts of violence that are not expected responses to human actions, what we are dealing with us mental illness. This is the case with ALL mass murders (outside of the context of war). To not learn more, as a society, about the varied forms of mental illness is to be complicit in the next tragedy.

    Thanks to you, too, Raul. Your interview with Ms. Coffey was great. Some valuable insights in times like these.

  4. And as the population rapidly ages over the next two decades, millions of baby boomers may have a hard time finding care and services for mental health problems such as depression — because the nation is woefully lacking in doctors, nurses and other health workers trained for their special needs, the Institute of Medicine said Tuesday.

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