When I grew up in Southern Appalachia, it seemed like everyone had a family member or knew someone who was a little strange — “quare” or “teched,” we said in deep accents. So long as they didn’t behave in ways that were dangerous, these “teched” people were tolerated. You could be a little (or maybe a lot) different, and as long as you knew your place, played nice, and didn’t cause too much trouble or embarrass people too badly, you could make do. It’s been said that if you put a fence around the South, you’d have an asylum. But in the days when there was more space between people and places, there was also more tolerance for the “local eccentrics” – they were just neighbors and family members.
Still, then as now, when behavior got out of line, it seemed easier to control it rather than ask for the story behind the behavior. There was a cousin who tried to jump out of a car, who was then confined to the upstairs because she was “uncontrollable.” There was the fellow whose daddy was “feeble,” who would wander nekkid in the rain except for his boots, “taking a shower.” Someone would remind him that it might offend the women folk to see him like that, and he would cover himself with his hands and go in. Then there was the man and his girlfriend, who were “simple” who walked about town in different costumes, play acting the characters whose dress they adopted, but couldn’t read, write, or drive.
Or the woman who was a teacher, who went into such a deep silence and sadness, they sent her to Broughton’s, once a colony model of mental health care that adopted shock treatment. Her children didn’t realize they would be searched when they went to visit—and were traumatized by the trip.
Sometimes folks down there married first cousins (though Minnesota has the highest number of first cousin marriages in the country…) because there weren’t so many people to whom one was not related in the area. Most of the time no great “mental defect” (as they were called) resulted. Sometimes they did.
And in all these cases–all of people I knew–no one ever asked, “What happened?” And for all of these people, once the label “mentally ill” was affixed to their being, no other label counted. Never were their experiences or history taken into account to explain the basis of their behavior.
Okay, there was one: one gent used to get a little tooted up on likker, steal a dumpy old private plane and “bomb” his ex-wife’s place with five pound bags of flour. Everybody blamed it on his troubles in the war.
Then as now, we had mass shootings – according to FBI and DOJ statistics, the numbers haven’t changed. What’s different now is the speed with which information flows. When we see immediate news of violence paired with mental illness, it makes people look a little differently at the “teched” friends and neighbors I grew up with, those people whose new label as “mentally ill” means their voice is silent. There isn’t a holler in the hills where people are immune to the frothing of the dogs proclaiming the mad are laying up guns and ammo waiting to kill lots of other people.
The fact is, it’s simply not so. People with mental illness are far less prone to lay up guns and ammo. The stats still say, no matter how you work them, that maybe 17% of the people with diagnoses become violent. More often, men with guns and overdeveloped senses of entitlement commit mass murders (sorry, fellows).
But it’s easier to blame it on the “others,” just like the days when it was easier to blame people of color, or people who were gay, or people of another religion, or pick-another-person-society-has-deemed “less than.” Pecking orders don’t like to be disturbed.
People diagnosed with mental illness are no more dangerous now than they were when I grew up in Appalachia. People who are convinced they are “right,” in my not-so-humble opinion, are more dangerous than ever. If we live in an open universe, there is much more to be known and considered.
In a trauma-informed system, folks work to find the facts.
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