In the wake of today’s tragic shooting of Virginia news reporter Alison Parker and photo journalist Adam Ward, the nation once again turns to issues of gun rights and mental health.
Yet the broad term “mental health” often mischaracterizes the type of person who commits homicidal acts. First reports indicate that alleged shooter Vester Flanagan was a disgruntled employee with an ongoing grudge against the station and his work associates there, but it’s doubtful that Flanagan showed overt, easily recognizable signs of mental illness in the years, months and weeks before turning his inner rage into murder.
Like infamous killers Jean Harris, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, Flanagan will be profiled and analyzed for years to come. But while we tend to profile shooting suspects, we rarely profile their victims. Yet there is a definite pattern of warning signs that many of us have experienced. Odds are, Flanagan’s victims Parker and Ward experienced some of them, too.
Maybe you have a person like Flanagan in your life. A difficult former coworker, spurned lover, angry ex-spouse, despondent family member, or shunned classmate who gives you a vibe that says maybe, under the wrong circumstances, this person could “go postal.” You don’t have enough evidence to ask for professional help, or simply don’t know who to ask. You would hate to overreact, or to create more tension with the individual by reporting them to authorities.
So you continue to have small run-ins with the person, and see subtle yet troubling indications of mental instability: a personal affront taken by them where none was meant…comments that seems removed from reality…that nasty email exchange that shows a lingering grudge. You may in fact know them to be diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed, or having anger issues. And while their outward behavior never rises to “crazy,” the nagging signs that something’s wrong are always there.
But seeking help is difficult, if not impossible. You can’t convince someone who is mentally unstable that they need psychological help. Usually this is a person who already is at odds with you and won’t take your advice seriously. They perceive their view of the world as the sane one, and probably view you as the unstable partner in the relationship. And reporting them to police or health professionals will simply get shrugged off; no one will do anything about someone who hasn’t yet shown outward signs of violence or highly erratic behavior.
So you sit with your thoughts and worry. You try to avoid the person when possible, but sometimes family relationships or workplace and school environments make avoidance impossible.
Too many of us have a Vester Flanagan in our world. Most will never be harmed by that person. But some will. And even though they lived with the knowledge and fear of their eventual killer’s mental problems, there was nothing the victims could reasonably do about it.
It’s all wrapped in a label called “mental health.” But dealing with the problem is harder than a labeling it.