Ragins: 'This is the Time to Promote Resilience, Community'

Life after Aurora By Dr. Mark Ragins Denver Post Op Ed July 27, 2012

Murders - especially random mass murders - are frightening. And when we're frightened, we look for explanations that will restore some sense of safety to the world. That's one reason so many people are speculating about whether James Holmes, the suspect in Friday's 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, for providing more and better mental health services or strengthening 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'm a psychiatrist who has spent my life working with people who have severe mental illnesses, and murder is no more sensible in my world than in yours, and it's just as frightening. Murder is unpredictable, extraordinarily rare and shocking. That's as true in those with mental illness as it is 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.

It doesn't help to know that statistically, those with mental illness are no more likely than anyone else to commit violent crimes, and that they're more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Or that, although it sometimes seems like we're in the midst of a murder epidemic, in fact violent crime has dropped dramatically across the nation in the last 20 years.

Those things may be true, but as we just saw in Colorado, horrible things still happen. And the media are more effective than ever at linking the billions of humans in the world, so we all have front-row seats at these stunningly rare events.

Whether or not the overwhelming violence in Colorado had anything to do with mental illness, the healthiest approach to dealing with the fear is the one we teach to rape victims. We have to acknowledge that there is violence in the world and that we can never be truly safe. We shouldn't be reckless, and we can take precautions, but the chance of encountering violence can't be completely removed.

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

When we're a little calmer, it might be reasonable to ask whether our current funding levels for mental health or our current gun laws or our current mental health services on college campuses are effective or not. But we have to examine these issues knowing two things: that nothing can make us truly safe, and that such large-scale violence is extremely rare. Policies that grow out of fear aren't always rational, and they can have unintended consequences.

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

If we don't go see "The Dark Knight Rises" or the next blockbuster movie premiere, or if we don't let the next "loner" into college or avoid him, we'll be giving in to our fears instead of facing them and learning to live with them.

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

Mark Ragins is director at the Village, a program of Mental Health America of Los Angeles.

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