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EDITORIAL: Mental illness neglected at high cost

Gazette - 10/22/2017

Oct. 22--View Comments

A young man used a knife to kill his 5-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother Tuesday.

"It's like it wasn't me," suspect Malik Murphy told 9News reporter Anastasiya Bolton, who visited him in El Paso County jail. Asked if he is sorry, Murphy said "extremely."

The unfathomable killings come four years after the son of a former Gazette employee used a knife to kill a 3-year-old boy and the boy's 1-year-old sister in Falcon for no apparent reason. The suspect, who took his life, had struggled with mental health disorders for years.

Whether it is senseless and gruesome local murders, or the latest mass murder, Americans routinely contend with crimes that seem prima-facie insane.

That's about the only time our culture talks about mental illness. Even then, the subject is secondary to gun control and concerns about violence in movies, video games and other media. All three discussions peter out within a week or two of the initial crime headlines.

When we have post-tragedy talks about mental health, the conversations focus on what signs people might have seen before the suspect killed. The conversations seem futile. Lots of people are depressed, bipolar or schizophrenic. Few of them kill, so how can anyone stop these random acts of violence, even with knowledge about an individual's illness?

Maybe we should focus more on improving the overall mental health of the general public, with preventative measures that keep illnesses from becoming so severe. Maybe we need fewer people reaching their teen years, or adulthood, with mental health conditions that could and should have been addressed early on.

Our government, medical providers and public schools focus a lot on prevention of drug abuse, obesity and diabetes. We don't wait until kids are fat, lethargic and physically ill before putting them into physical education. We strive to improve school lunch programs and educate about nutrition. At routine checkups, doctors monitor blood sugar, blood pressure and other vitals that detect early signs of physical ailments that will become severe if ignored.

We don't wait until children are addicted to crack before teaching the pitfalls of drugs.

"That's really the goal, to talk about mental health the way we talk about diabetes and the flu and high blood pressure -- just to bring it more into the mainstream health conversation," said Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Meredith Jones.

Kaiser recently commissioned a 50-foot spray-painted mural in downtown Colorado Springs. The mural is designed to reduce the stigma that keeps mental health discussion on the margins, reminding passersby they "are all in this together."

A Kaiser mural in Denver says "You matter. You are brave. You are enough."

"It's taboo to even discuss the subject of depression or mental health at all," said local artist Mike Fudge, who produced the Colorado Springs mural. "People suffer in silence."

Our society has largely destigmatized everything from same-sex marriages, to sex changes, to alcoholism and drug addiction. Yet, we continue struggling with old, ignorant stigmas about mental health disorders. We need to get over it, and fast.

No one asks to suffer a mental illness. No one can simply snap out of it. Mental health disorders are serious, real and no more worthy of shame than cancer.

Billboard campaigns are a start, but improving our collective mental health will take a cultural revolution no less significant than the battles waged for gay rights, gender equality and same-sex marriage. We must embrace and advocate mental wellness in media, health care, education, families, churches and public policy.

Let's not wait for another gruesome tragedy. Instead, let's put mental health front and center. Let's begin healing today.

The Gazette editorial board

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