I received a text two days ago. "Did I tell you another HS boy over-dosed?" This followed on the heels of a suicide by a recent graduate from my children's high school. Both of my kids, a 17-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son, have sat next to a student who took their own life. Additionally, their social circles are rife with children suffering from emotional disorders, depression and addictions. Somehow, the idyllic, Norman Rockwell village I live in has failed to provide these children with the protection promised in the brochure. I have learned that an affluent zip code does not provide immunization from these issues. It is no longer an "I can't believe it" moment when I hear of a young man, angry and desperate, using an assault weapon to spray a classroom full of young children.
We are usually flooded with emotions when we hear of children taking their own lives and senseless shootings. Anger and outrage flare up on news channels and editorial pages. By calling these people crazy or monsters, we distance ourselves from understanding the underlying disease that led to their tragedies. For our culture is one that distances itself from mental illness.
Consider 19-year-old Kevin Breel's difficult admission to suffering from depression in a recent TEDxYouth speech. He points out our hypocrisy clearly: "Unfortunately, we live in a world where when you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast. But if you tell people you're depressed, everyone runs the other way. That's the stigma. We are so so so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brains."
Here is a challenge for you. Take a moment and try to walk in the shoes of a mother of a violently mentally ill boy. Her love for her son is evident. As a brilliant student, his potential as a contributor to the world is clear. Yet this young man is caught in a web of institutions and threatened criminal charges. In American society, the trajectory laid down for boys like this is painfully barren and hollow.
Read a real-life story of a mother working with this struggle in "I am Adam Lanza's Mother."
We need to make it OK to talk about mental illness. We need to find practices like the signing of the cast, to make it OK to be "singing the blues." Our kids need to have a safe places to reveal their struggles -- and we have to be OK with what we hear. Are we even ready to hear it when their words sound shocking to us?
As I write this, CNN is playing back the terrifying news at a GA school. A distraught young man, suffering from bipolar disorder, according to his brother, and on probation, had stormed the school building intent on killing as many police as possible. (You can find the story of this miraculous tragedy averted on Huffington Post here.) The school's book-keeper, Antoinette Tuff, found herself negotiating with the shooter. As she spoke to him at the human-to-human level, she convinced him to lay down his weapons. Her words of compassion included, "It's going to be alright, sweetheart -- I just want you to know I love you, though. Ok? And I'm proud of you... it's a good thing you're doing giving up... We all go through tough things in life."
Ms. Tuff did not demonize this young man and she didn't run or hide. She had the courage to show up as a real human being and to use common sense. Sensing his suffering, she shared her own vulnerabilities so he could begin to heal. Lives were saved. Healing started.
It was then I wondered, "How far would I go? If the solution to these problems must start in our own lives, could I follow Ms Tuff's lead?"
The bar has been set high.
Consider the reaction of the Amish community in 2006 when 10 Amish girls were shot in a schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA, resulting in five deaths. Taking place only an hour from my home, I remain broken-hearted whenever I think of this tragic, senseless act. Before shooting, he reportedly told the girls, "I'm angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with him." He took his own life after shooting the girls.
The Amish responded by inviting the shooter's wife to the funerals of the girls. At the shooter's funeral there were more Amish in attendance than non-Amish. The Amish and Antoinette Tuff are my heroes. They are the role models I want to learn from.
Demonstrating compassion doesn't always save lives as dramatically as it did in Antoinette Tuff's case, but the potential is real. Maybe compassion means buying that homeless person you see every day a bagel and a cup of coffee while you listen to his story. Maybe you can help a neighboring family out as they work through some challenges. Maybe you can ask your children if they want to meet with a therapist. Once you start to think about it, there are a lot of places to start.
Take Action: If you are interested in learning about or developing habits of empathy, check out this article on the six habits of highly empathic people. We can all learn to appreciate the blues a bit more.