Mental Health, Mass Shootings and the Problem of Human Suffering

I saw a 60 minutes story on Sunday addressing the issue of mental health in America. Schizophrenia affects approximately 2.4 million American adults. It is a disease of the brain, not the mind. People who have schizophrenia hear voices in their head and they are often berating, scary and angry. They are unable to decipher the difference between their vivid hallucinations and things that are actually happening.

We used to warehouse people with severe mental disabilities in massive asylums. When the inhumane conditions of these asylums were documented and made aware to the public, outcry ensued, reforms were passed and the massive institutions were shuttered. People with severe mental illness were released into the community at large with the idea that they would live in semi-supervised housing with a case manager who would regularly check-in and administer medication.

None of it was funded

The government and the public at large does not make caring for its mentally ill a priority so millions of people with severe mental illness were just released back into society. Most of them are now homeless. Many of them commit minor crimes of survival like petty theft or trespassing (to sleep) and overflow our already overcrowded jails and prisons.

Many of the anonymous and untreated mentally ill get their hands on automatic weapons and massacre everyone around them.

Despite our persistent and unwavering effort to run away from the problem of mental health, it is coming back to bite us and it is biting us hard. Mass-shootings are now happening on a weekly basis.

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Instead of spending tax dollars proactively on therapists, medicine, social workers and housing, we are spending even more of it on a bloated prison industrial complex, i.e. private corporations whose only fundamental purpose is to generate profit.  We are spending it with human lives when the mentally ill so easily get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminately slaughter everyone around them.

This cannot continue to happen. This needs to be addressed. We cannot sweep mental health under the rug anymore. I’m not just talking about severe mental disabilities but also depression or anxiety. One in every four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness.

We have to get rid of the stigma. People will not seek help if they are ashamed or otherwise led to believe that they are inferior or weak for their mental illness. We have to abandon the tendency to magnify the ego, to deny humility and hide away vulnerability. We have to embrace compassion and take care of our fellow human beings.

We are all connected to each other whether we like it or not

We either pay for it in the spirit of compassion with a focus on therapy and rehabilitation or we pay for it like we’re doing now in the spirit of  hiding it away while the problem festers and magnifies to the delight of the free market who has turned human suffering it into a profit.

Our democracy has been usurped by corporations

Our broken system persists because the market has found a way to make the problem of mental health profitable, whether through the prison industrial complex or big pharmacy, and the market controls the politicians.

90% of Americans want stronger gun laws, yet our so-called representatives have done nothing because they are beholden to the PR department of the gun industry that somehow has established itself as a political institution purporting to be the voice of freedom against this fictionalized government that wants to take everyone’s guns away, when in reality the NRA’s only purpose is to promote gun sales.

Any law that regulates gun sales in the name of public safety will also slow down gun sales and thus gets misrepresented and sold to the masses of gun-rights advocates and gun lovers as a meddlesome government standing in the way of a Constitutional right. This argument works because the masses don’t trust the government.

Why? Because they know our government answers to corporations, not people. We live in a country whose highest court says corporations are people and that money is speech and literally allows politicians who are supposed to be acting in the public interest to be purchased by massive corporations who are making a killing (no pun intended) on our dysfunction and demise.

We live in a me-first society that is not taking care of our weakest. We live in a society that shuns mental weakness, one that elevates the ego to the extent that most people go so far as to deny mortality by clinging steadfastly to the extension of ego into heaven or other iterations of an afterlife that can only scientifically be described as imagined.

After watching 60 minutes, I flipped to PBS and watched the end of a documentary about Buddhism. The narrator said something that struck me about a fundamental difference between Buddhist and Western ways of thinking.

The first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists.

Suffering is the starting point of Buddhism. The dissolution of suffering is the Buddhists’ aim. Suffering is not hidden away or denied or silenced by some imagined utopia, some pie in the sky when we die. Suffering is featured and can only be ended by silencing the ego, becoming aware of the the underlying unity behind every duality and then living with love and compassion toward all human beings, especially our weakest.

Here is the 60 minutes story. Now go start a revolution.



The Pitfalls of Social Media

The other day I was reading The Book by Alan Watts (written in 1966) while the kids were in swim class and the following passage jumped off the page:

“…increasing efficiency of communication…can, instead of liberating us into the air like birds, fix us to the ground like toadstools. All information will come in by super-realistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body – even to distant reaches of space. But this will be a new kind of individual – an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity.

And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences

The trend of all this is towards the end of individual privacy, to an extent where it may even be possible to conceal one’s thoughts.

At the end of the line, no one is left with a mind of his own: there is just a vast and complex community-mind…” (emphasis added)

Then I came home and looked at Facebook and scrolled through all the photos of smiling faces, delicious food, faded pictures from college hashtagged with #tbt, duck face selfies and commentary about what Facebook told us was trending that day.  And it made me realize how prophetic Alan Watts was when he wrote these words almost fifty years ago.

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The problem with the vast and complex community mind of social media is that it does not accurately reflect the true nature of the human condition. It creates the illusion that everyone is always happy, eating delicious food and doing interesting things. The proliferation of this illusion indirectly disparages the darkness as not worthy of sharing, something to be hidden away, something worthy of shame.

I am just as guilty as everyone else. I only share  my best photographs, the ones that paint me and my life in the most positive light possible, the natural smiles, the awe inspiring vistas and inspiring quotes. I’ve never written, “feeling pretty lonely today” or  “struggling to find my life’s purpose” for one of my status updates.

Happy moments are made ever more poignant and powerful, more worthy of sharing and celebrating by the existence of sad moments, the recognition of our vulnerability and humility.

We cannot have light without the dark.

The problem with a dualistic way of thinking is it promotes the idea that opposing things are separate and at odds with one another when they are actually unified and working together to create something greater.

“The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” – Carl Jung

I am often depressed. I am also often happy. This is what it is to be authentically  human.

And this authenticity, this vulnerability is what we should share and celebrate together.