Deja vu: Another troubled young man, another massacre

Back in July, I concluded my blog post about the horrific massacre in the Colorado movie theatre as follows: 

Social media and mass communications have become so overwhelmingly powerful, the images of violence and mayhem so inescapable, and powerful deadly weapons so readily available, it’s no surprise that for certain deranged individuals, the lure of deadly international fame will prove irresistible. Sadly, the massacre in Aurora probably won’t be the last.  

Bacon Francis 3 heads

I wish with all my heart that I’d been wrong, yet here I am, trying once more to make sense of a senseless act of violence. We don’t yet know what motivated Adam Lanza to kill twenty first-graders and six staff at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, and the answers may have died with him. We do know that he spent countless hours closeted in his bedroom with his computer, but the authorities are saying he smashed it up so thoroughly that the contents may never be recovered.

Once again, in the wake of this tragedy, the pundits are pontificating about gun control and mental illness, and theorizing about what can be done to prevent future massacres. There are no easy answers, but one is painfully obvious: outlaw or severely restrict the sale and possession of semi-automatic weapons and magazines.

In January of 2011, after Jared Louchner opened fire in a Tucson parking lot, killing six and injuring 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabriella Gifford, I began writing the following blog post: 

Bacon Francis seated figureAs soon as I heard the first reports about the twisted thinking of the shooter in the horrific Arizona massacre, a snap judgment came to mind – I was willing to bet he was paranoid schizophrenic. As an art therapist, I’d worked for over a decade with patients who shared that diagnosis, and I knew the symptoms well. It was Jared Loughner’s creation of a “new currency” to rival the government’s that was the tip-off.

I knew quite a few paranoid schizophrenics who believed in complicated structures of world domination, often involving the government. Sometimes they thought they “controlled” these bizarre delusions, but of course it was the delusions that controlled them – that and the fact that they were confined to locked wards in a state psychiatric hospital.

That was back in the 1980’s – ancient history when it comes to the treatment of mental illness. At Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie, deinstitutionalization was making rapid inroads, with more and more patients being discharged to the community, but there were still well over a thousand inpatients, many of them there for years on end. All were judged a danger to themselves or others, and many had done prison time. I worked with arsonists and murderers. It was almost inconceivable that some could ever be discharged, yet in the years that followed, most of them were. I don’t know what became of them.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t frightened. None of them ever assaulted or even threatened me. I like to think that was because of my charming personality or therapeutic skills, but more likely it was my role as a creative arts therapist. I didn’t wield the authority to change their medications or make crucial decisions regarding their privileges or discharge planning, so I didn’t constitute a threat. The options I offered – music, art, creative writing and role playing – weren’t required; patients could elect to take them or leave them. Then too, they were on heavy doses of medication.

One night a week, I facilitated a Creative Arts Club at the Rehabilitation Center for those approved by their doctors to leave the wards. In a mostly dark, deserted building, with only a therapy aide and sometimes an art therapy intern for backup, I helped them to create murals and to act out their issues in sociodramatic role playing. We held art shows in the community and staged cabarets for the other patients, with me as the piano accompanist. Years later, these events provided the inspiration for the climactic cabaret scene in my novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

I never finished or published that blog post – in part because I couldn’t figure out what conclusions I wanted to make, in part because I was in the throes of profound depression at the time. I was barely able to get out of bed in the morning, and nothing, including blogging, seemed worth the effort. Yes, I too am one of the millions of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness. In my case it’s bipolar disorder, currently well controlled with medication.

It appears Adam Lanza may have had Asperger’s syndrome, technically a developmental disability rather than a mental illness. Perhaps with proper treatment, he might also have been diagnosed with an underlying mental illness and received appropriate help. In any case, people with Asperger’s are certain to be further stigmatized the way people with mental illness already are.

Should our society start locking up more of the mentally ill, the way we did in the good old days of Hudson River? Probably not, but these days millions of them are doing time in prison instead. The old-fashioned psychiatric hospitals were far more humane, and sometimes they actually helped. But of one thing I’m absolutely sure: those deadly semi-automatic weapons have got to go.

Bacon Francis carcass umbrella

 Illustrations for this post are all paintings by the British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992), one of the biggest influences on my own art. 

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