Guest columnist: To reduce violence, work toward wholeness

Dec. 20, 2012 @ 07:06 PM

The events in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 have struck me deeply. I work as a psychiatrist at Durham Center Access, where members of our community come for treatment of mental illness and/or substance abuse. Most people come to our facility voluntarily, but on a daily basis Durham Police bring people to our facility for evaluation because of risks to harm self or to harm others.

Some have been saying that the person in Connecticut who murdered these adults and children may have had a mental illness. Pundits and experts bringing this up seem to have an agenda: either to say that the reason this crime happened is because of failure of the mental health system; or because they believe the problem was an evil person who was beyond help or redemption.

I have no idea if the person who murdered these adults and children had a mental illness. If he did, it is a tragedy he did not receive treatment. However, studies have shown that generally mental illness alone does not cause violence. In fact, the speculation and wish to find a “defect” in the individual who committed these crimes distracts us from issues in our society that contribute to violence.

The fact is, as a society we often see individuals as a “problem” but don’t acknowledge that our society itself has problems (just some of which being racism, sexism, injustice, isolation, materialism, commercialism, and access to rapid-firing, powerful firearms). To some degree all of us are all participating in, and constantly re-inventing, a society where some unfortunate individuals act out their feelings violently and tragically.

Our participation in our imperfect society does not excuse the violent behavior of some individual members, but only makes a tragedy of missed opportunities and disconnection more profound. We are all connected, even the least or most troubled, one to the other.

We cannot prevent or heal violence by standing by, waiting for violence to happen, and then asking the criminal justice system to deal with the situation. We make a similar mistake if we expect the mental health system to prevent violence in our community.

Instead, together we can best prevent violence by working toward wholeness -- a just, more connected community. This is the work that will best reduce the risk of violence in our community, and help victims of violence heal.

The Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham is a nonprofit organization that is actively working through organized outreach to prevent violence, and has events and vigils to support victims and heal the effects of violence in our community. I would urge anyone interested/moved by the events in Connecticut to attend one of its events or donate to this organization.

Another local resource is the Durham Crisis Intervention Team, a grant-funded collaboration between police and mental health professionals. Durham CIT members are trained to work together to find and reach out to individuals, both those with mental illness and those with other troubles, at risk for violence. They prevent violence by connecting at-risk individuals to mental health and other resources in the community.

Working in coordination with other local agencies, they have helped connect at-risk individuals to help that peacefully resolved many situations which otherwise might have resulted in violence.

Unfortunately, this program was grant funded, and the grant will end in January 2013.

I am deeply mourning this terrible tragedy and my thoughts and prayers are with the victims in Connecticut and their families. I am resolved to work toward wholeness in our community to reduce violence through work and service. I hope you can join me in support of the organizations above.

Logan Graddy, M.D., is staff psychiatrist for Durham Center Access and a forensic psychiatrist in private practice.