Wednesday, April 16, 2008

a time to heal, a time to speak out

I suppose this should be my Virginia Tech shootings commemoration post. I should be reminding you about how awful that day was, not just for the students, but for the community of Blacksburg and its far reach. I should be telling you about how I found out about the shootings (while at work, at my desk), about how I found out that a friend was in that building (Jesse called, he is a good friend he went to Tech with), about how we felt until we knew he was ok. I should tell you about what it felt like to watch the news, to see the faces of the victims in pictures during happier times. I should tell you about the strength of the community of Blacksburg, Hokies who bleed orange and maroon, who came together and rose above this horrifically tragic event.

But that's not what this post is about.

In my therapy sessions following the shootings last year, I shared with Dr. W (a VA Tech alum herself) my feelings regarding the shooter (I know his name but can't bring myself to type it). I wanted to blame him, especially after his tape came out. I needed someone, something to blame. But I couldn't blame him. And I was frustrated. Dr. W found herself in the same predicament.

We both knew why.

He appeared to be mentally ill. In my attempt to comprehend why something like this could happen to such a friendly, humble community, I was thirsty for knowledge about the shooter. I couldn't watch enough CNN or read enough articles. The shooter was ill. It was recognized at an early age and nothing was done about it. He was sent to a therapist, but it didn't stick. His parents chose to send him to church instead. But not all prayers end in miracles. And unfortunately, the mental condition of the shooter deteriorated to the point where murder and suicide were the only answers.

Well, why chose church over therapy? Why not go back to therapy after the prayer thing didn't work? Why was the family determined to keep this 'problem' within the family? Why not reach out to resources that are available in circumstances such as these?

Stigma, that's why.

In some cultures, having a mental illness is so socially undesirable that it would be better to keep it secret than to do anything about it. In our big brother culture here in the U.S., people don't seek treatment because they are afraid of someone finding out, resulting in social, political, and economical (job-related) ramifications. When I was depressed, I felt guilty about seeking treatment because I figured that there were people out there who needed it more than I did. People pop prozac like candy here but everyone's afraid to talk about being depressed. Why?

Why are we afraid to talk about mental illness? Why are we afraid to seek help? Is it so wrong to be labeled as depressed, anxious, schizo if you're actively in treatment for it? Wouldn't it be better to seek treatment than to suffer in silence as the problem escalates?

As I said earlier this week, if you were diagnosed as diabetic, would you be ashamed to ask for insulin?

Had the shooter remained in therapy, would we have had a 4/16? Had his parents supported him and acknowledged his illness, would things have been different? Would the shooter have felt isolated or desperate had he been treated for his condition?

There's nothing we can do about him now, but what about the next potential shooter?

Today, on the first anniversary of 4/16, I am calling for an end to stigma. I want people to feel free to seek help if they need it. I want people to be unafraid of losing their friends, jobs, significant others because they are ill. I want people to support, unconditionally, any friend or family member with mental illness. And if they are not in treatment, I want people to encourage their friends or family members to seek it.

My name is Liz.
I have generalized anxiety disorder.
I suffer from panic attacks and separation anxiety.
I was in weekly therapy for treatment (and will resume therapy now that I have insurance again).
I have family and friends who know this and still love me.

And I'm ok.

There's no shame in that.


Anonymous said...

Courage like yours gives reason to erase the stigma every day. Your honesty is amazing. And this is why you have the support system you do, beucase you are a wonderful person.

Much love,

lizzie said...

shell: you're going to make me cry. thank you for the kind words. luv ya.

Mme. Meow said...

Good for you, Lizzie. It takes courage to write these pieces with as much sincerity and honesty.

instatick said...

Your honesty is amazing - thank you! And I agree with you - if there wasn't such a stigma attached to mental illness, things like 4/16 might not happen. I lost a close friend to suicide, and have struggled with depression for years myself, and, if my friend and his family would have been willing to pursue treatment for his depression, he might still be here today. So, what I'm trying to say is thank you for this post. It's beautiful.