When I work with organizations and teams on issues of diversity and inclusion I like to start with a definition of terms:
Getting to this kind of clarity is essential in any situation. It is especially vital when emotions fly high, and far-reaching decisions need to be made.
As a nation we are in the midst – yet again – of trying to figure out how to keep us all safe. We are at 100% agreement that we want to come home alive and well at the end of the day. From schools, offices, shopping malls, houses of worship. And we want to be safe at home – no abuse, no assault, no drive-by shootings.
Can we agree on what exactly it means to have our safety protected? For some – let's ban assault weapons and prevent access to guns for people who are dangerous for themselves or others. For others – let's turn schools, shops, movie theaters, places of worship, hospitals (list to be continued) into impregnable fortresses. And – let's prevent access to guns for people who are dangerous for themselves or others.
That's how we get to a conversation about mental illness. Do we all know what we are talking about? As the term "mentally ill people" gets thrown around it feels increasingly as if it's a very obvious box with a big, bold, easy to read label. Wait a minute.
Imagine there were 3-legged people. Imagine it was clear and evident that (1) you are either born that way or wake up one day with a full-size, unconcealable third leg and (2) walking on three legs means that you can get unstable at any moment. We would've had it easy as a society: Three Legs = No Guns.
Mental illness is not a "third leg". It can be a life-long struggle or a one-time situational visitor; it can be easily identifiable or take years to diagnose. How do we know that people with weapons whom we will put in charge of protecting our "fortresses" will not snap? We will need a lot of battle-ready manpower for that kind of protection plan. Are we sure that none of them have PTSD or are former military spouse abusers? How do we know a teacher entrusted with being a designated gun bearer does not spiral into depression (for the very first time ever) due to a divorce and does not "overreact" when triggered by a room of obnoxious teenagers?
There is a great degree of stigma against mental illness already. Ask a military person or a police officer how easy it is for them to seek mental health counseling. Ask people who work in community mental health services how much (or rather how little) they are being paid for their work. Ask families of mentally ill people how hard it is for them to find supportive services or medical care for their loved ones.
Here is another term that calls for urgent definition. In the days following Parkland's school shooting we hear politicians, grieving parents, TV commentators, our own friends using words "this is our new reality".
Mentally ill people are often referred to as "crazy". What can be crazier than trying to convince ourselves that mass shootings are (and thus will continue to be) our new reality and that easy access to weapons of mass destructions is our constitutional right?
It sounds like the only thing we can do now is to buy stocks of gun manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies. Nothing personal – just business. These seem to be the only terms that are clearly defined.