I walked out of an assessment in the partial hospitalization program at The Ohio State University to see my cell phone lighting up with phone calls and texts. My phone vibrated in my hand, flashing the contact name, “Dad.” We text more than we call, so I knew something was up.
As I answered his call, I heard clinicians in the staff room saying, “mass shooting,” “active shooter on campus,” “we’re on lockdown,” as the alarms in the building were going off alerting us of the active “Code Silver.”
“Are you alright? Are you working today? Where are you?” were the questions barely registering in my head from my Dad.
I tried to listen to so many voices at once to let him know I was safe, our building was safe, and the event was taking place about a mile from where I was at the time. Alarms continued to sound, our supervisor was trying to control what was already a short-staffed staff while coaching everyone on how to tell our 30 patients that we were on lock down due to an active shooter on campus.
Everywhere we turned, patients in the program were in the hallway, on couches, in the kitchen, visibly emotional, crying, yelling, trying to call family members. Clinicians scattered to counsel individuals or small groups of people who could no longer focus in their psycho-ed classes. All while in the staff room, other clinicians were watching CNN and seeing the scene unfold just blocks from where we all sat.
Monday, November 28, 2016 was a chaotic, heartbreaking, scary day at OSU. As I made my way home, I knew there would be many posts on social media sending positive thoughts and prayers to our community. But I also knew it would be a chance for folks to bring their political agenda to the forefront. And one of the first posts I saw went something like this: “Why can’t we have better mental health care to catch people before stupid stuff like these mass shootings and mass stabbings happen?”
Now, I hope that I’d feel some rage from a comment like this at any stage in my life. But as an intern at the university where the stabbings happened, on staff of the partial hospitalization program for people in our community struggling with mental illnesses, I shattered.
All I wanted to do was defend every single patient I have. I wanted to defend my family, my friends, MYSELF who have diagnoses. I wanted to defend people I love, the career I chose, the years I’ve studied.
I kept repeating to myself: Not all people with mental illnesses are murderers. And shockingly, not all murderers have mental illnesses.
What can really influence people to be part of a mass attack are things like hate, rage and weapon ownership… all of which can be a part of a mental diagnosis, but none of which are diagnosed in the DSM-V, the current book of diagnostics counselors use to diagnose clients. It’s even been said that folks with mental illness are less likely to commit crimes such as mass attacks because mental illness can cause people to withdraw and socially isolate.
Research shows very little evidence that psychiatric evaluations can be predictors of dangerous actions. The issue is: there are so many things at play. We can’t just eliminate all people with mental illnesses and then believe that there would be no more mass shootings. Because here’s the thing…
Someone can make a decision to be violent based on very logical and sound reasoning. Someone can come to the conclusion that violence is the best answer through a very rational and thought-out process. Meaning, not everyone who acts violently is facing a mental illness. In fact, many studies show that all humans are capable of violence (like murder) when put into the right situations.
I felt the need to reflect on the situation at OSU, as well as many other similar situations, because of my career and my patients, but also because of the people I know personally who hate to be put into a box just because they have a diagnosis. When it comes to analyzing someone’s violent actions, we can’t just assume they have a mental illness. In fact, it is these assumptions that have created such a dangerous stigma around mental illness. I’ll be working hard making it my lifelong goal to prove that mental illness can be scary but it doesn’t have to be. I’ll be working hard to prove that mental illness doesn’t make you a horrible person, nor do you have to be too scared to ask for help. I’ll be making it a lifelong goal to show everyone I know that we need to stop making assumptions about strangers and take the time to understand mental health, just like we attempt with physical health. By no means do I condone the actions of the young man at OSU on Monday, but by no means will I stand by and let people make false assumptions about the field of mental health.
“At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it is still an illness, and there should be no distinction.” -Michelle Obama
Kristina Walsh is a counselor-in-training at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, completing her internship this year in Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Care in Harding Hospital at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.