OUR VIEW: Latest murders underscore mental illness concerns

Ed Updated: February 17, 2013 at 12:00 am • Published: February 17, 2013

The devastating murders of two local children, ages one and three, serve as yet another ominous wake-up call for our culture to make a higher priority of getting a handle on mental health.

Most of us know someone, directly or by extension, who suffers some form of mental illness. Often the best friends and relatives of a person suffering from bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia or other complex conditions have no clue what to do about it. Some who love and care about them live in constant fear of what those individuals may do to themselves or others. In Colorado Springs, because of the community’s large military presence, we deal with a disproportionate number of men and women who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of serving their country.

The suspected killer in Wednesday night’s apparent knife-murders of 1-year-old Scarlette Gallagher and her 3-year-old brother, Ryan Willhite, suffered from bipolar 1 — based on a statement from his parents. Police believe the suspect, who died later that night in the hospital, inflicted his own wounds after killing the children.

The mother of the suspected killer is known to many at The Gazette, as she worked for years as a colleague. She and her husband were, by all accounts, loving, loyal, devoted parents who were involved in the life of their now-deceased son. They actively tried to help him with his condition.

The story has become too familiar. A young adult commits an unspeakable crime that has some nexus to mental illness. The suspects in recent massacres in Aurora and Newtown, N.J., were known to have mental illnesses as were many others suspects and convicts in past high-profile crimes committed with knives, bombs, guns, cars and other tools of destruction.

We address this not as any form of excuse for any type of crime. It is not. Nothing aside from self-defense excuses a homicide. Yet, if society has any chance to prevent such horrors as were perpetrated Wednesday it needs to develop more understanding of conditions which play a role in them.

This is not a simple dilemma to resolve by merely identifying and acknowledging the problem. The vast majority of mentally ill individuals do not commit crimes and we must be vigilant against confusing them as criminals. Unless and until a person with a mental disability commits a crime, the person should have the same level of respect and most of the rights as anyone else.

Since the shootings in Aurora and Connecticut, politicians at the local, state and national levels have grappled with concerns about society’s management of mental health and we have seen little in the way of meaningful proposal that would help. Yes, by all means keep guns away from the severely mentally ill. Beyond that, our government seems to have few good answers.

Yet, we grieve in the wake of tragedies and wish someone could have found a way to do something before it was too late. We grieve mostly this week for those who knew and loved the beautiful children who were killed Wednesday night. And we grieve for those who knew and loved the suspected killer — people who will live forever with the loss of a loved one and the knowledge that he caused such unimaginable grief for others.

As society copes with recent horrors, we should de-stigmatizing mental illness. If we are free to talk about it with neighbors, colleagues and friends, we are in a better position to help those in our lives who may suffer various forms and degrees of mental illness. And those who suffer from these conditions are more likely to get the help they need, if we can all talk about it without the fear of humiliation and shame.

None will live long enough to see an end to mental illness or the collateral pain and suffering it can cause when things go horribly wrong. But we all must work together to help those in our lives who suffer these conditions and those who love the mentally ill. We can no longer afford, as a community, to look the other way. The concern belongs to us all.

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