It is with a sense of deep disappointment that I am reacting to your columnist’s recent reflection on the mass murder of innocents in Newtown, Conn. [Another day when our world stood still, Viewpoints, Dec. 19]. Like Ms. McCarey, I “have been angry and sad,” but for a very different reason than hers.
Her otherwise sensible column was terribly compromised by a thoughtless mistake. I strenuously object to her application of the term “nutbag” to the young man who, for reasons unknown, planned and executed this unspeakable act.
It is reasonable and proper to call him to account and to require that, if he had lived, he would have been tried before the bar of justice and punished. A civilized society demands no less.
But it is quite another thing to descend to dangerous, inflammatory and, yes, ignorant name-calling in using “nutbag” as shorthand for a mentally-ill person. Simply put, she has joined forces with those who are quick to stigmatize illnesses of the mind and to marginalize those who suffer from them.
We do not urge a person with kidney failure to “snap out of it” but are quick to view mental illness as a symptom of weakness or moral failure which can be switched off like a lamp.
The time has come — it came a long time ago — for honest, unprejudiced discussions of an illness that has touched more individuals and families than we know or are ready to admit.
As an antidote to Ms. McCarey’s provocative lack of insight, your readers might begin by heeding Dan Haley’s response to the Connecticut tragedy in the same issue of the Journal. He calls for “an openness to finally talk about mental illness without the stigma and the isolation.”
As further inoculation against dangerous carelessness, your readers might review a column that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on the same day, Dec. 19. There, a woman recovering from mental illness responded quite differently to the Connecticut tragedy. She observed as follows:
“I feel a melancholy that comes from knowing firsthand how one’s mind leaves reality, not by choice, but by circumstance. … There are certain kinds of mental illness that infect the mind like a virus attacks the body. It weakens the defenses, cripples resolve, and leaves one vulnerable to corrosive thoughts.”
She adds: “Research shows that most people who live with mental illness are not violent toward others. They are more likely to hurt themselves.”
Finally, author William Styron’s brief memoir, Darkness Visible, is must reading for those who do not yet have an open mind regarding mental illness. That title, not incidentally, is taken from Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost. The volume is available at the Oak Park Public Library.
No “nutbag” he, Styron chronicles his wrenching descent into clinical depression and his long, successful, recovery. In it, he notes that he had no prior “inkling of its true contours or the nature of the pain so many victims experience as the mind continues in its insidious meltdown.”
Let the discussion begin.