by Jacki Post Ashkin, LCSW-C
As I read the news reports in the days that followed the senseless shooting at Columbia Mall, what stood out to me most was the revelation that in shooter Darion Aguilar’s journal, he wrote about feeling unhappy, and that he thought he needed a mental health professional but never told his family.
Every year, one in four Americans experiences a mental health problem but fewer than half get treatment. The primary reasons they don’t seek help is the fear of being perceived as weak, and fear of the discrimination and social stigma that comes with being labeled “mentally ill.”
It is important to note that the vast majority of people who are coping with psychological distress never become violent or harm others. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of crime or to hurt themselves.
The fact that we are in the fourteenth year of the third millennium and there is still stigma that prevents people from seeking mental health treatment makes me shake my head with sadness.
When someone has recurring stomach cramps or migraines or back pain, it is likely they tell someone in their family and make an appointment with a doctor. But when suffering from an ache in their psyche or soul, they feel ashamed and suffer in silence, often becoming isolated. Why? Why is this still the case in 2014? We seek out specialists in physical health – oncologists, urologists, cardiologists, gastroenterologists, neurologists – so why do we hesitate to seek out specialists in behavioral health – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers? Whether physical or behavioral, the issue is our health and wellbeing. We should be able to access the care we need when something ails us, impacting our ability to function and our quality of life.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are not failures of character, and they are certainly not lifestyle choices. They are illnesses, and they are involuntary, just like diabetes or colitis or cancer. No one thinks less of someone who gets cancer. In fact, people often rally around offering empathy and support. I have hope that our society will soon recognize that people who feel overcome by dark clouds they can’t shake need the same non-judgmental empathy and support. And once that happens, perhaps compassion and help will be offered readily. Then, maybe those among us who are suffering emotionally and psychologically won’t hesitate to get the medical care they need.
Would the tragedy in Columbia have been avoided if mental health care had been acceptable and accessible? Would three young lives have been saved? I don’t know. No one does. But, we are left to face the fact that a nineteen year old knew he needed help but kept it inside until it was too late.
Jacki Post Ashkin, LCSW-C, Senior Manager, JCS Marketing and Development
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