I have debated, on and off, since Friday, if I should write something about what happened. I have turned my thoughts over and over in my head and I kept coming back to the same thing – I wanted to get them out. I wanted to write them down, so-to-speak. No matter how jumbled, no matter how all over the place, I wanted to see them in front of me. Because like much of what goes on with me, I deal with it better when I can write about it.
You all know what it is I’m speaking of – the tragic shooting at an elementary school Friday morning that left 20 six- and seven-year-olds dead and six of their teachers/administrators, who died trying to protect those children and others.
On Friday when I heard the news, my heart immediately leapt into my throat. Another shooting at a school? At an elementary school? Why?
My thoughts turned to my dad, an elementary school principal. To several of my closest friends, who are teachers. To the elementary-school-aged children in my life. I thanked God it wasn’t them while at the same time wondering how this could happen, why this could happen. Again.
I was in high school when Columbine happened. Just out of college when Virginia Tech did. I saw Dark Knight Rises a few weeks after the shootings in Colorado. Any one of those events could have happened where I live.
I watched and read the news all day Friday. But I didn’t let myself really feel it until Sunday morning. Sunday morning we sat in church, with 26 candles on the altar, representing the victims. Our pastor brought up the questions we all had: “Why? Where is God? How could he let this happen?” And he couldn’t answer them. No one can.
Saturday night, I babysat two of my favorite kids, both around the ages of those killed in Connecticut. I hugged ’em a little tighter while we sat on the couch together. I made the effort to play more, to do more fun things with them, while underneath it all, my heart was breaking for the parents who wouldn’t get to do the same. For them and for the babysitters, aunts, uncles, teachers, family friends, who loved those kids like they were their own, whose levels of grief I can’t even fathom.
People want to talk a lot about guns right now. That’s not my plan. There’s a bigger issue, a more important issue, one that people don’t talk about, at least not until it’s too late. That issue is mental health.
I’m writing this fresh off a visit with my therapist. I see her about once a month – sometimes the stretches are longer, but lately it’s been about four weeks apart. Today, one of the things we talked about was my medication. I am medicated. For depression and anxiety. Because sometimes life sucks. And sometimes it’s stressful. And sometimes, for some people, chemicals in their brain don’t fire the same way as others. The medicine fixes that.
A few years ago, I was afraid to go to a therapist. Afraid it meant something was wrong with me. Luckily, I had a friend who convinced me otherwise. Who told of all the good it had done for her. And if it weren’t for her, and the situation that ultimately got me to go, well, I don’t know. I’d be where I was then. Unhappy. Constantly stressed. Crying for no reason every other day. Dragging myself out of bed because I had to, not because I wanted to.
My personal experiences with mental health are tiny compared to what’s out there. But the stigma’s the same. To many, therapy means admitting a problem. It means something’s “wrong with them.” It means they’re “giving up.” When they hear the words mental health they picture asylums, padded walls, straightjackets.
People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to admit they need help. But no one can do it on their own. As human beings, with souls and hearts and emotions and minds, we need connections to others. And not just for the good stuff. We need someone we can call and say “Help” or “This is hard” or “I can’t do it.” Does it mean something’s wrong with you? NO. It means you’re a HUMAN.
Every one of these shootings has come back to mental health. The shooter was unstable. And it wasn’t just that one time. People remembered previous instances when they were worried, when they were unsettled, when they wondered just what was going on inside that person’s head. But nothing was done, until it was too late.
People with a mental illness cry for help. They do it in different ways, but it’s there. Does that mean everyone should be institutionalized, should be watched like a hawk and sent somewhere the first time they make a comment that doesn’t seem right to you? No. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer for how to deal with someone with mental illness, because they’re all so different.
But I do know that there are signs. I do know that people in a bad place don’t just get there overnight. And I know that they can’t get out of it alone.
Those children should not have lost their lives Friday. Neither should the people in that Colorado movie theater. Or at Virginia Tech, or the mall in Oregon.
We need to have these conversations about mental health. We need to get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness. Not everyone who has a problem will do something of this nature. And the more we talk, the more people are willing to seek help, to not be afraid to ask if they need it, the less likely we are to have something like this happen again.
We owe it to the memory of those 26, and all those before them, to make a change.