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Illness’ role in tragedy minimized

The national conversation since last week’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., has reminded me how our still under-informed, over-anxious understanding of mental illness – or of any cognitive or neurological difference – suggests we haven’t come far in the decades since some snickered about depression being contagious.

The shooter was “known to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome,” cable anchors tell us, as if that might explain a child-killing spree. But there is no link between violence and this high-functioning form of autism.

And though you might not know it from some of the coverage, Asperger’s isn’t a mental illness at all, it’s a developmental disorder. The young adults I know with Asperger’s are all smart and sweet, and simply had to work harder to learn the social cues that came effortlessly to their peers. The fact is, young people with Asperger’s are far more likely to be bullied than to do any bullying.

I’m equally chary of vague reports that Adam Lanza “had some kind of personality disorder” and was “on some kind of medication.”

Maybe he did and was, but there is no medication that treats Asperger’s itself, and fears that antidepressants can set off killing sprees are mistaken: “There’s no evidence to support that,” said Bernard Vittone, director of the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression.

Some of our other most beloved biases have come out to play, too: How quick we are to blame the slain mother of the kid gone horribly wrong. If you’ve had to sleep by your friendless grown son’s door, to calm his fears, then go ahead and judge Nancy Lanza’s decision to take her son to a shooting range in a desperate attempt to connect with him.

TV always seems to throw a story like this one in the blender, so that what comes out is indistinguishable from the last horror and the result weirdly numbing. When we read some of the smaller details, though – about the kid who said he wouldn’t have anybody to play with now that his sister had died, or the boy who said he knew karate and could save the others – we feel the enormity of what happened and we cry that we won’t stand for it.

Only, then what? I hope we won’t waste too much time arguing over whether gun control, or better mental health treatment, or pushing back against violent video games is the proper place to start; in my mind, the answer is all of the above.

There are pieces of this problem strewn across the political spectrum: The left is correct that actually, guns do kill people. But the right has a point, too, about the “culture of death,” in the language of John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life.”

Struggling to understand, we insist on referring to the actions of people who must be desperately sick as evil incarnate. A well person doesn’t shoot a bunch of 6-year-olds, though, and while I believe in evil, from a Christian perspective, sin involves free will, which I’m not sure someone who acted as Lanza did was in any shape to exercise. Saying so is popularly seen as “excusing” such horrific acts, though it doesn’t.

Calling illness by its modern name is important because we have so much hard work to do, on multiple fronts, that we can’t afford to set off in the wrong century.

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer.

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