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The fear factor

Mass slayings, such as in Colorado, are terrifying but also extremely rare.

July 24, 2012|Mark Ragins | Mark Ragins is a psychiatrist and medical director at the Village, a program of Mental Health America of Los Angeles. He is the author of "A Road to Recovery."
  • Signs and mementos are left at a memorial for the people killed and injured at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Signs and mementos are left at a memorial for the people killed and injured… (Rick Giase / EPA )

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.

In the 50 years the Los Angeles' Department of Mental Health has been around, it has employed thousands of people and served hundreds of thousands of clients. As far as I know, Robbyn is the only staff member murdered by a client. But that doesn't make her killing any less horrible or any less frightening. My friend is still dead.

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 murder -- and all 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.

After my friend Robbyn died, walls of bulletproof glass were erected at mental health clinics. Metal detectors were installed and security guards hired. I doubt these things really made anyone safer, but they did put barriers between mental health workers and their clients, between us and the work we love.

When we're frightened, our natural response is to hunker down, hide away and erect walls to keep the world out. We feel the need to reassure ourselves that we can separate ourselves from danger. But we know that we really can't, so no matter how much more we do, we're still frightened.

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. I would have been doing the same thing after Robbyn's death if I hadn't returned to working with homeless, mentally ill people.

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

Together.

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