Notice if you insert verbs like hit, slap, insult or even verbs like run over, hang, drown, or stab you don’t get as immediately concerned as when you insert the verb “shoot”. We get concerned because we know instinctively about the lethality and availability of high power semi-automatic and automatic firearms. Our brains use negative emotion to get us to do something about it, get it to stop, because the oldest, most instinctive part of us recognizes it’s in range. The danger is real. Hence there is no doubt the immediate and serious problem we have with controlling some guns has arrived at our door. We have to do something effective about guns in this society.
But this is only part of the problem. Take a look at the sentence again. Something is terribly wrong in our society if indeed thousands or even hundreds are in such a state of mind. We hear story after story of distraught parents or teachers recognizing troubling signs in a child or student and being at a loss as to how to find effective answers or means of intervention in their communities to head the problem off. They run into a collapsed mental health system whose power has been neutered and policies have long since been warped by insurance companies and lawmakers who lost the political will to find funding for them. And they run into a statute that defies logic by setting the bar at “dangerousness to self or others”. In other words, before municipal authorities or mental health professionals who do know what to do can act, the situation has to reach those proportions. It’s like telling someone whose bleeding is severe and life-threatening, “We won’t see you in our emergency room unless you are dumping at least two quarts on the floor per hour.”
We live in a society of disconnection where neighbor is afraid of the ethnic or religious background or lifestyle of their neighbor, where differing political views become grounds for vilifying or terminating relationship. We live in a time where people are failing to know each other and to soothe each other by plugging in emotionally. It has become an ingrained habit to avoid, disconnect from, and pretend others who are different don’t exist. In the on-line world we don’t really connect so much as do a drive-by, virtual presence through an avatar. The trouble with this strategy is that the laws of attachment state that when we don’t connect, the situation becomes inherently more threatening. When we fail to know each other we become strangers and an old part of our brain recognizes the peril of being cut off or being the one cutting others off. When we fail to know and relate to each other we create and perpetuate our own worst fears. And this is happening at a time when technology and the speed of information and immigration patterns are forcing us ever more tightly together into one big village.
So what can the response of the mental health community be in such a time as this? I’m sure it’s manifold and multiplex. Society has perhaps never needed us as badly as it needs us now. One thing I’d suggest is that we initiate and model what we’re supposedly good at–how to talk to one another. I’d be in favor of the return of town hall meetings in every neighborhood, precinct, parish, or town in America. But they’d look a lot different than the flurry of insults and innuendo, misinformation and stonewalling positions that we see in Washington or in the media. A guy named William Isaacs wrote a book back in 1995 entitled “Dialogue–The Art of Thinking Together”. It’s an impressive and inspirational book and a manual for how to do it right. I’d like it if everyone with a mental health license in the country was required to read that book. I’d like it even more if as a second step government would fund mental health professionals trained in the Isaacs approach to spearhead town hall meetings for a 3-5 year period. Could you imagine it–wherever we live, training others to listen as if the other’s plight were one’s own and to talk non-violently? For trained professionals to begin a process where people meet regularly with each other and get familiar with their neighbors’ hopes, dreams, problems and fears again.
I’d like to live in a country where participating in such small group dialogue was considered a regular part of one’s civic duty. Where indoctrinating one’s children, once they were of appropriate age, into such participation was considered a routine part of how you raise a child. I’d like to have it so the voices of the young and the very old, with all their experience, and everyone in between, were gathered once a month into the same community space and people just listened to each other.
To be sure, this wouldn’t solve all our problems. But the fact that we face many and they are complex, is, as the President recently said, no excuse. It’s time to take whatever steps we can. I see it as one way that would likely cut down on some of the forces currently in place that produce the degree of alienation that in turn gives rise to festering rage or despair that drives some of the weakest of us to finally wreak havoc as a way of signaling their distress.