When a man walks into a movie theater, kills 12 people, and injures over 50 more, it is easy to imagine him a monster, a “crazed madman,” a demon who must himself be destroyed in an effort to keep the rest of us safe. Indeed, he may face the death penalty for his crimes, an acknowledgement that we have no certain way of helping this person back from the chaos in which he currently lives. We can’t help him, not enough to trust he’ll never do something like this again, and so death may be the only cure our inadequate society can offer.
It may be a while before we truly understand—if we ever do—what was going on in James Holmes’ world these past few months, leading up to the violence of July 20. And it’s considered very bad form to “diagnose” mental illness from afar (not to mention, ahem, that I’m not a psychiatrist). But I worked very closely with patients hospitalized with mental illness during my time as a hospital chaplain. And I could be wrong, but I frankly assume that James Holmes has had a psychotic break (a “break with reality”) and has been suffering from paranoid delusions that prompted his actions. Yes, I could be wrong, and only time will tell, but I think anyone who has worked with mental illness has the same strong suspicions.
I have spent hours talking with people with paranoid delusions. To them, everyone is a potential threat: family, friends, police, doctors, hospital staff, even the chaplain. No one is to be fully trusted. The world is a terrifying place, where everyone is plotting to harm. Anti-psychotic medication can help diminish and even eliminate paranoia and delusions, but how to convince a mistrustful patient that medications are meant to help, not to poison? One of the most painful aspects of mental illness is the patient’s inability to realize, in the throes of their illness, that they need help. And medication itself can be tricky; the right combination of meds can help like magic, but it can take a long time and much painful experimentation to find that right combination.
This is why the support of family and community is so critical for helping all of us monitor our own mental health. When any of us start to slide into depression, mania, or distorted thinking, begin to experience hallucinations or delusions, it is friends and family who can help provide a mirror to what is happening. Strong support systems are one of the protective factors that shore up mental health and well-being.
Which is why it is significant that James Holmes lived alone in an apartment, separate from his family living three states away, with no close friends, it seems, in his university community. In our culture where isolation and disconnection are an acceptable norm, there was apparently no one to hold up a mirror to his actions, no one to witness his purchase of weaponry and ammunition, no one to bring him to a hospital out of concern for his potential to harm himself or others. I imagine that he has spent the last month psychotic and alone, trapped in a growing delusion of fear and violence, his mind spinning a waking nightmare that he was unable to distinguish from reality.
And I weep for him. I weep for his suffering. I weep that what appears to be an untreated (or mistreated) psychotic episode led to the death of so many, and may finally lead to this man’s death as well.
Times like these are a particular challenge for the mental health community. On the one hand, Holmes’ actions, understood in a context of untreated mental illness, may not be so inexplicable. On the other hand, mental illness is already so stigmatized in our culture, so taboo to acknowledge and discuss, that there is understandable reticence to connect this violence with mental health issues. As Mike Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, notes in his excellent blog post about psychosis and the Colorado tragedy, “despite many public perceptions, we do know that generally the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low.” Any conversation about violence and mental health must begin with the strong reminder that such violence is RARE.
When a man walks into a movie theater, kills 12 people, and injures over 50 more, it is easy to imagine him a monster. It is easy to cast blame. It is easy to respond to violence with fear and hatred.
But as a person of faith, I am called to remember that James Holmes has inherent worth and dignity. He is a human being, not a monster. His culpability will be determined by a court of law, not a court of public opinion. And in this time of sorrow for lives lost and wounded, I pray that we keep our hearts tender and open, that we reach out to one another for the comfort of connection, and that we hold ourselves ever more accountable to and responsible for our communities of family and friendship. May we be mirrors for each other. May we be support for each other. May we be protection for one another.
May it be so. Blessed be, and amen.