Mental illness: The laugh? It’s on us all

Published in The Oregonian, March 12, 2010

You laughed, didn’t you?

You snickered after you heard about the 12-year-old girl, the one who was shot at point-blank range with a lead-pellet bag and then later convicted of assaulting the police officer. You heard she turned around and set her bedroom on fire.

Jenny Westberg

Jenny Westberg

Twelve, now 13 years old, she’s a big girl for her age, but still a child. She’s African American. She has a diagnosis of mental illness.

She snapped. Maybe it was a last straw. After living through all that she has suffered, she was watching TV coverage of the bench trial in which she was, unaccountably, found guilty in an incident where she was a victim.

So she did something “crazy.”

Still laughing? Catch your breath long enough to think about your own kids, your neighbor’s kids and a society in disrepair, ill-equipped to deal with mental illness. Gallows humor captures the futility of the midnight patrol officer, the juvenile justice system, middle school counselors, parent support groups, public defenders and district attorneys, laws and judges, courts and courtrooms trying to heal the wounds of mental illness.

They can’t do it. No matter how much money is spent, no matter how many promises are made, they haven’t a clue where to start, much less how to help.

Was the laugh a mask for helplessness?

Aside from drugging our kids and putting them in cages, what exactly can we do? How do we help them? How do we heal them? How do we minimize the chance of our kids acting out, doing something so crazy that strangers laugh?

Kids spend their childhood watching you. They see everything. Every time you get drunk, every time you curse someone, every time you lose your temper, your kids measure you. So give them something to be proud of. You want your kid not to drink and do drugs? Get some help for your own problems. Model sobriety. Model integrity. Model kindness.

Everything you say and do with your kid is in preparation for that terrifying moment when the world is turned upside down. Often it starts with a telephone call late at night. “Mom, I’m in jail.” Or, “Dad, she says she’s pregnant.” The singular goal of years of parenting is trifold: one, that your kids call you when they’re in trouble; two, that they’ll listen because they respect you; and three, that — somehow — you’ll keep your cool.

If that call never comes, you’re blessed. But getting through that midnight call takes a lifetime of building trust and communication. It takes love and constancy.

Your midnight call may not come on the telephone, and it may require getting professional help. Don’t wait. Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. How do you know something’s gone wrong in your home? Secrets. They’re like poison.

And what about that snickering? Look beneath. When the laughter dies away, we’re face to face with our true feelings.

Relief. Thank God it wasn’t me, my child, my hopes and dreams destroyed by an illness no one understands and no one wants.

Sadness. I am my sister’s keeper. By silence or by snickering, I’m letting her down. And my kid’s probably more like her than she is different. If I haven’t been through the nightmare, I might one day. Can I put myself in her place, in her mother’s place?

Disappointment. What happens to this youngster? The interventions offered by the court are a noose tightening, eliminating options and alternatives, and will soon take away her freedom and her future. What can we offer her except more pain?

Terror. What if mental illness is not something that just happens to others? What if I am not so different? Well, you’re not. Your child isn’t either. No matter the color of your skin or how much money you have, your child could gradually slip away or even break, and your girl’s bedroom could be in flames.

The snickering is a sad, hollow response to our worst fears. Have empathy and recognize a young girl’s pain. Have courage and use your true feelings to move toward action, toward hope. Respond with compassion, and respond with support. Most of all, respond with your voice. Tell yourself, tell your friends and your family, tell the whole city you’re not laughing any more.

Because the fire’s not just in one girl’s room. It’s everywhere.

Jenny Westberg is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.