Stop Obsessing Over Your Ex

Stop Obsessing Over Your Ex

I used to have a really hard time getting over past relationships. I would find myself ruminating over the person, wondering if our breakup was a mistake and contemplating reaching out to see if we could try again.

That same thinking kept me in bad relationships for far too long and kept me stuck when I should have been moving on.

It wasn’t until I started doing therapy with clients who were in various degrees of anxiety and depression due to a break up that I started to realize that it’s not usually the person I was missing, but the idea of that person, the experiences and the feelings.

You Don’t Miss Them, You Miss The Idea of the Person

A woman once told me, and it was such a great line I don’t doubt that she heard it somewhere else before, perhaps in a movie, “You don’t want me, you want the idea of me.” At the time I thought she was totally wrong, but as I’ve grown and learned to understand myself and other people, I now know that she was absolutely right. I didn’t really know her, but I was attracted to her physically and had already become attracted to the idea of her being my person.

I was doing what most of us do subconsciously. We meet people and then make certain believes and assumptions about that person.

When we like someone, we tend to make them out to be this impossibly perfect person. Even when we notice their flaws we tend to justify, minimize or downright ignore them. This explains why we often ignore many red flags that signal someone isn’t good for us early in the dating process.

When this person starts not living up to who we created them to be in our minds, we tend to grow disappointed, unhappy and fall out of love because we start seeing the person for who they really are which often is in stark comparison to who we made them out to be.

Once the relationship ends, often we start remembering that person, not as the person they really were, but as the idealized person we created. We like to romanticize and we pick and choose memories that have strong, happy emotions over more unpleasant ones. We start missing that person, not as he or she was, but our idea of that person. Sometimes we even start missing the person we felt they could have been and not who they really were.

You Don’t Miss Them, You Miss The Way They Made You Feel

In our minds, we tend to downplay the more negative experiences and feelings. “Our fights weren’t that bad.” “Maybe I was just sensitive and he wasn’t a womanizer”. “He only yelled at me because he loved.”

This kind of thinking is sometimes called the Halo Effect. When you remember the good qualities of a person and minimize the negative. It’s partly why many people stay or go back to abusive relationships. It’s what makes it hard to separate from toxic people because they are usually really good at treating you special and then treating you like crap, putting you on a roller-coaster ride that can make you question your own sanity.

We start looking at pictures and remembering times when we were happy, smiling, having fun and madly in love with the person and pushing aside the things that weren’t so good and maybe were even awful about being with that person.

We miss the feeling of flutters in our heart that comes with being in love, of laying next to someone and talking all night long or holding hands, kissing and going out on dates. Suddenly, all the heartache they may have caused us doesn’t seem to hurt so bad.

If you don’t have friends or a journal to remind you of how terrible they treated you most of the time, it’s easy to fall back into missing how well they treated you every now and then.

It’s okay to miss people, but it’s not okay to miss anyone who used, abused or mistreated you. If you do, it means you need to take time for self-care and learn to embrace reality. You’re awesome and deserving of someone who will treat you better. It’s something I struggled to learn for a long time. It took understanding codependency and detachment for me to break that cycle.

You Don’t Miss Them, You’re Just Lonely

If you only miss the person when you’re lonely, then you don’t really miss the person. When we’re lonely, sometimes we think back to our past and wish we could lean on someone who isn’t there any more. We may even think we still love that person, but it’s not love it’s loneliness.

As humans, we don’t like to be alone, especially when we are dealing with problems. Sure, most of us like to have our space and time apart and some of us are really good at being alone, but most of us crave bonding, relating and socializing with other people from time to time. When you’re lonely, it’s easy to start longing for an ex because we wished we had someone.

Before you know it, you’re calling or texting that former flame or perhaps even worse, crying over that person, or should I say, the idea of that person.

If you don’t think about that person when you’re happy and having fun, perhaps wishing they were there to share the experience with, then you’re not still in love with them, you’re lonely.

You Don’t Miss Them, You Miss Who You Were With Them

When we think about our past with that person, the experiences and feelings we had together, it’s easy to believe that we are missing them when really we are missing the person we were when we were with them.

Just like we tend to idealize people and create versions of them that probably never existed, we do the same with our memories of them. Often, when we miss a person, what we really miss is how they affected us.

I used to ruminate on a particular woman I was in a relationship with and often times I missed the way she would make me laugh, or how we would go out on the weekend and paint the town red and I’d miss how we would sing love songs to each other. I minimized how drunk she sometimes go, how reckless she could be and how scarily volatile her moods were.

Once our relationship ended, I no longer had anyone to do those things with. I missed those feelings and I missed the person I was during those times because that person was a happier, more out going person than I was in reality.

I would find myself alone on a Friday night wishing I had someone to go out with and when I was out, I wished I had someone to sing off key love songs to. I didn’t really miss that particular woman, but the experiences, feelings and person I was in that relationship.

It is definitely possible to miss a person, but that is rarely the case. As humans, we’re so complicated with the way we torture ourselves by creating people, memories and emotions that aren’t always based on  reality.

Often we ruminate on people who don’t deserve our attention or energy.

Those same feelings and experiences we had with an ex, we can and will have with someone else if we allow ourselves to move on.                                                                      .

Why The Death of Kobe Bryant Hurts So Much

Why The Death of Kobe Bryant Hurts So Much

 

The tragic death of Kobe Bryant is a hard pill to swallow for many people and not just his fans or sports fans. I could go on and talk about all of his great accomplishments on and off the basketball court, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the reasons his death is so shocking is because he was a relatively young person who had overcome the odds and created so much success in his life. He was one of the best basketball players of all time, a multimillionaire, a philanthropist and devoted father. He was just getting started on the second act of his life which looked just as promising as his first. He appeared to have everything and more to come. And then he was suddenly gone along with his daughter and several other precious lives.

The reason the world seems to take a collective pause when we lose our celebrities and heroes unexpectedly is because it reminds us of our own mortality. It reminds us that at any moment, we too could be snatched off of the face of the Earth without warning.

Many people become anxious and depressed at this thought. They have what many professionals call death anxiety. Instead of becoming anxious or depressed at this reality, we should embrace it and use it to remember to live each day to its fullest. To stop being afraid of life and to live it while we still can. To let go of grudges and move on. To appreciate our families, spouses and friends. To love and not hate. To not put off things until tomorrow because tomorrow is not promised. To let go of the past and live fully in the moment.

In her book, The Top Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bonnie Ware writes about the insights many people who are dying have had. The beautiful part about this is that we don’t have to be terminally ill or on our death beds to learn from these individuals clarity about life. Ware reports that the top five regrets of people who are dying are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

  1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

  1. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

  1. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

As we celebrate the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the seven other people killed in this tragic accident, let’s also vow to live a more fully, intentional life with less regrets.

Declutter To Improve Your Mental Health

Declutter To Improve Your Mental Health

Recently I observed a client’s home that was very cluttered, unorganized and messy. It wasn’t filthy, meaning it wasn’t something you’d see on an episode of Hoarders, but it definitely was chaotic. I also noticed that the two small children in the house appeared to run amok, the wife was frustrated and tense and the husband appeared overwhelmed and mentally checked out.

I suggested, as an experiment, that the couple clean up their home, get rid of toys and other items no longer in use and focus on making their house much more simplified and organized. I urged them to try this for a week, not allowing things to get out of hand once the house was clean so that cleaning in itself wouldn’t become another stress inducing task. What we found out during that week was almost a night and day difference.

The children, while still children and occasionally rough housing and dragging toys from one room to the other, weren’t nearly as hyper or overly stimulated as they had been. They appeared much calmer and threw less tantrums.

The mother also appeared happier, less stressed and admitted to spending more time around her kids and husband in the family room (because it was clean) instead of isolating herself in the bedroom.  The father was also more engaging with the family and more present.

The house was much calmer, quieter and in terms of energy, appeared lighter. The entire family appeared happier, less stress and less out of control and the parents vowed to attempt to continue living their lives in this more organized, decluttered state.

How Clutter Affects Your Mental Health

Clutter in itself can cause stress and be a symptom of feeling stressed or poor mental health. Cluttered environments are often a sign of cluttered minds. Also, when you are surrounded by clutter, you can start to feel overwhelmed, anxious, agitated, crowded and tense. Sometimes to the point where you feel like giving up on even attempting to get organized so you let the chaos build on itself or check out mentally.

This clutter not only affects you, but it can affect those around you such as your partner, your children, your friends and coworkers. Think about it. If you never invite people over to your house because you’re embarrassed, if neighbors are complaining about the junk in your yard or you can’t find that report you were working on because it’s lost among a thousand other papers, clutter is probably affecting you more than you realize it.

This doesn’t mean that you are a hoarder on a clinical level, but our physical space and how we choose to live in it is usually a reflection of who we are on the inside and too much clutter can be a sign of a lack of control and can worsen our mental health.

Where do you start

Judih Kolberg, chief organizer at FileHeads Professional Organizers suggest playing what she calls the “Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers Game”.

“As you go through your closets, drawers and big old storage containers, immediately get rid of the ‘strangers’, those items you definitely don’t want and, in some cases, might not even recognize. Donate ‘acquaintances’, useful items that just aren’t your favorites and are never used, to a thrift shop, and keep the true ‘friends’, the favorites you can’t live without”.

My advice is to start small. One room at a time, one drawer at a time and one item at a time. Solicit friends and family for help if you have to and in the end, don’t feel like you have to give up anything you really, truly don’t want to give up. Somethings have emotional value to us, even if they don’t to anyone else.

In the end, try to only keep things that bring positivity and joy into your life. Get rid of anything that brings no value or worse, negativity.

Clearing your space will definitely help clear your mind and improve your overall mental health.

Rest In Peace: Gene Atkinson III

Rest In Peace: Gene Atkinson III

I wrote earlier about how it’s hard for men to talk about their feelings. Men, we really need to because it’s literally killing us.

Earlier this week, former NFL player and Notre Dame Superstar, Gene Atkinson III passed away after a long battle with guilt and depression. He has just turned 27. While no one has formerly said how he died, it is widely speculated that he committed suicide just as his twin brother Josh had done on Christmas Day last year.

The brothers’ father was former NFL player and Super Bowl champion George Atkinson II, but the brothers were raised by their mother who has been described as a schizophrenic who self-medicated with crack cocaine. The brothers’ home life was unstable and they moved often due to their mother getting evicted for damaging walls or writing on them.

I can only imagine what life was like for these two young men being raised by an untreated, mentally ill, drug addicted mother.

When they were 13 their father took custody of them and gave them the stability and discipline that they lacked. They excelled. Both brothers would go on to play football for Notre Dame University and Gene went on to play briefly in the NFL.

Sadly, their mother died in 2018 from complications of Crohns disease. Both brothers had a hand in the decision to pull the plug on her life. This heartbreaking decision caused Josh Atkinson to feel tremendous grief and months later, on December 25th, he committed suicide.

Gene felt guilty over not being able to help his brother, calling it the greatest pain and suffering he ever felt. He too began to suffer deep feelings of depression and having suicidal thoughts. He was even hospitalized for a brief period after trying to harm himself.

In October of this year, Gene wrote an open letter about his struggle with depression and grief in hopes that it would help others reach out and talk about their pain instead of burying it and suffering with it alone.

Gene wrote that thinking about his then 2-year daughter motivated him to seek help and to keep fighting. He did however admit that he was still struggling and worried about how he would cope with the upcoming holiday season.

Unfortunately, it appears as though Gene Atkinson III, like his brother Josh, lost his hard fought battle with depression.

Men. We are not weak if we talk about our feelings. We are not weak if we cry. We are not weak if we ask for help. It takes a lot for us to open up. Doing so makes us strong!!!

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Many Police Shootings Involve The Mentally Ill

Sinuon Pream is pictured in this undated photo. The 37-year-old  mentally ill woman was shot and killed by Long Beach police in January 2017.

Last weekend when I pulled into my driveway I saw an alarming, but not totally unusual sight. My next door neighbor who suffers from a mental illness, was pacing back and forth between my driveway and his, yelling and swearing at the top of his lungs.

I could barely make out what he was yelling about, but I heard a few words that made me think he was venting about some type of unresolved childhood traumas and was clearly off his medications and in a manic state.

He was perspiring profusely and didn’t even acknowledge me when I pulled into the driveway and got out of my car. I didn’t attempt to engage or redirect him because he appeared agitated so I quickly went inside of my house.

For the next hour or so I could hear him yelling. Periodically I looked out of the window and watched him walk back and forth as if he were having an argument with someone who wasn’t there. In the past some of our other neighbors have called the police on him for disturbing the peace and I was hoping that none of them would call the police this time, because as scary and intimidating as this behavior could appear, he was harmless. However, if the police got involved, depending on their approach, I was unsure of how he would react and what the outcome of that interaction would be.

In the best case scenario, the police would come, identify him as a mentally ill individual  and transport him to the mental health hospital which is less than five miles from where we live. Another outcome would be that they would arrest him as they had done numerous times before when he was off of his medication and causing a scene. The worse, and yet what I feared to be a highly likely outcome would be that they would see his manic and agitated behavior as a sign of aggression and use force, perhaps even deadly force on him.

Thankfully, after close to 2 hours of yelling and pacing, he went back in the house and all was quiet again. No one had called the police. No one had gotten hurt.

I woke up the next morning to hear on the news that in the next county over, a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer after his family called seeking help for him.

Deadly Force and The Mentally Ill

I wrote an article a few years ago about mentally ill individuals and deadly police encounters. Unfortunately, individuals with a mental illness make up a disproportionate number of people stopped, arrested and killed by law enforcement officers.  Research suggests that approximately 25% of the individuals that law enforcement officers encounter have a severe mental illness.

Individuals with a mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during encounters with law enforcement compared to the general population.  Some statistics estimate that nearly half of all law enforcement deathly force incidents involve an individual with a severe mental illness.

That is why I was so afraid to call the police to ask for help with my neighbor that night. It’s sad that so many people who need help end up arrested or getting killed by those asked to help them.

Law enforcement officers need to undergo intensive and ongoing training in dealing with mentally ill and unstable individuals and to not always resort to deadly force during these often tense, unpredictable and scary encounters. They could first attempt nonlethal force, verbal de-escalation or calling for more assistance before reaching for their fire arm.

Communities can also increase assess to treatment programs so that individuals are less likely to go untreated and hopefully decrease their chances of having encounters with law enforcement.

When you look into it, the number of mentally ill people involved in deathly police shootings is staggering. No family who calls the police asking for a well-being check on their mentally ill loved one should worry that he or she will be shot and killed by those who are supposed to protect and serve.

“I’m Good Bro”: Men and Mental Health

“I’m Good Bro”: Men and Mental Health

Like most people, there have been times in my life where I was really down, even depressed. Things in my life just weren’t going the way I wanted them to go and most often for me, that boiled down to my love life.

I remember one time in particular when I was going through a break up and was battling anxiety and depression to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on much nor could I eat or sleep much at all. It felt like the emotional pain would never go away and I just continued to isolate myself and ruminate on my problems more and more.

Finally, my best friend called me and asked me if I were okay. My response was, “I’m good bro.”

I’m good bro? Why in the hell did I say that when I clearly wasn’t good. As a matter of fact, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I had lost several pounds from not eating, laid in bed praying for sleep to take the pain away, but the anxiety kept me awake with racing thoughts and fear. I was in pretty bad shape, yet my response was, I’m good bro.

Even then I wondered, why did I say that? Why didn’t I just tell him what was going on with me? The answer was because I didn’t want to appear weak. I didn’t want to appear emasculated. I didn’t want to burden anyone. I didn’t want anyone, especially another man to know that I was depressed.  I felt shame in that. That shame kept me from asking for help. It nearly killed me.

From my experience, depression has a way of sneaking in, unassuming and nonthreatening. It has a way of making you feel comfortable with it, almost like an old friend or warm blanket, until it starts to suffocate you. Only then do most people realize that they are in danger and need help. Sadly, too many people realize it too late and pay the ultimate price.

Still as I was getting suffocated by depression, I muttered, “I’m good bro”, and effectively rejected any help my friend could have offered.

As a mental health professional, what I have learned over the years is that most men who suffer from anxiety, depression and stress will also respond “I’m good bro” when they really aren’t.

Men don’t like to talk about their feelings and are slow to ask for help. For many men it takes thoughts of suicide to compel them to reach out for help which usually means they have been suffering alone for quite a while.

While these men are suffering and attempting to “hold it together”, their suffering not only has negatively affects on them, but also on their work performance, parenting ability and relationships in general.

Men like to think of depression and anxiety as problems women have, but men and women both suffer from these common problems. It may look differently in men than it does in women as men tend to isolate themselves more, become less motivated, become angry, aggressive or turn to drugs and alcohol more.

Reasons Men Don’t Talk About Their Mental Health

There are many reasons men don’t talk about their mental health issues, but according to one study, the top reasons are:

  • ‘I’ve learnt to deal with it’ (40%)
  • ‘I don’t wish to be a burden to anyone’ (36%)
  • ‘I’m too embarrassed’ (29%)
  • ‘There’s negative stigma around this type of thing’ (20%)
  • ‘I don’t want to admit I need support’ (17%)
  • ‘I don’t want to appear weak’ (16%)
  • ‘I have no one to talk to’ (14%)

When men do want to talk about their feelings, most report that they would prefer to talk to their romantic partner, but not everyone has a romantic partner and even those who do may be uncomfortable feeling vulnerable. That’s why it is important that men feel comfortable asking for professional help if needed.

In order for us to get men to feel comfortable seeking help, it’s important that we normalize men’s mental health problems much in the way that we have normalized treatment for erectile dysfunction problems. When we do this we remove the stigma surrounding men’s mental health problems. By helping men feel comfortable talking about their thoughts and feelings, we not only positively impact their lives, but the lives of everyone around them.

Parents Denial of Their Child’s Mental Health Issues Doesn’t Make It Go Away

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

ImageThe more family sessions I do, the more concerned I become at the astonishing number of parents who are in denial of their child’s mental health issues.

Recently I was dealing with a teenage girl referred to me by her mother because she was scared to be by herself, “acting weird”, talking and laughing to herself.

After meeting with the girl twice I got her to tell me some information she had ever told anyone else. She was hearing voices and having extreme paranoid delusions of someone putting “voodoo” on her and making her do things against her will.

After further sessions and gathering more collateral information from her mom and sister, I diagnosed the girl with a psychotic disorder, with a rule out of paranoid schizophrenia.  I referred the mom to a local psychiatrist so the young lady could be evaluated further and the mom was extremely hesitant. She…

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Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Why Are There More Suicides In Jails Than In Prisons?

Suicide prevention of  inmates has been the main focus of my job for the last five years. It is such an important topic because in the United States suicide is the leading cause of death to inmates in jail.

This gets little attention because when most people think about inmates committing suicides, they tend to think about inmates in prison and for obvious reasons:

  • Prisons are usually bigger and overcrowded
  • Inmates in prison are usually there for more violent/serious crimes than inmates in jail
  • Inmate in prison are usually serving longer sentences, sometimes life sentences

While those reasons are valid points, the facts are that inmates in jail are more at risk of suicide than inmates in prison. This is important to know because family members are often shocked when their jailed loved one commits suicide often before they have even been to trial.

One reason jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000) than prisons (15 per 100,00) is that people who enter jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement” situation. They are suddenly removed from their daily lives, their support system, stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy.

Also for some there is the fear of the unknown and perceived lack of control over the future that causes extreme anxiety and depression. They’re not sure how long they will be incarcerated or if their loved ones will stand by them. That isolation from their family and significant others can cause tremendous anguish for many inmates.

Many have a distrust of an authoritarian environment. They may fear for their safety, of being assaulted physically and/or sexually.  The living conditions and perceived dehumanizing aspects of incarceration are also difficult for many inmates to accumulate to. Some have to strip search in front of officers, are housed with inmates they would never associate with in the outside world and have to deal with the sleeping, showering and using the bathroom in not so private settings.

Depending on the person and the crime, many inmates experience a great sense of shame about being incarcerated. I have met doctors, law enforcement officers, pastors and prominent members of society who got arrested for everything from domestic violence, DUI to child molestation and stalking charges. They all had a very hard time dealing with not only being in jail, but with the affects it had on their social status.

Jails Usually Don’t Know Who They Are Getting

Jails get people right out of their personal lives, meaning that they get severe alcoholics and drug addicts who end up going through excruciating detoxes that sometimes end with them taking their own lives. They get chronically mentally ill individuals who may be off their medication or highly suicidal. They get people in the middle of a divorce or custody battle that they can’t fight from behind bars. Jail staff may not have a clue about these issues until the inmate starts exhibiting symptoms or attempts suicide.

Because jails are getting people right off the streets, they face a higher risk of inmates dying from drug and alcohol related complications as well.

By the time these inmates are sent to prison, the prison staff already have a detailed history of the inmate from the jail. Inmates have been detoxed and ideally mentally ill inmates have been stabilized on medication.  Also, inmates usually have acclimated to being incarcerated and come to terms with what’s ahead for them.

Many inmates who commit suicide do so before they have even been convicted. They’ve already thought of the worse case scenarios, i.e., “My wife is going to leave me”; “I’m going to get beat to death by other inmates”; “I’m gong to get raped”; “I’m going to prison forever” and decided that death was the better alternative.

The rise of inmate suicides is also partially due to the increased number of mentally ill inmates being jailed. Jails have become the new de facto mental health institutions, but they simply are not equipped to handle inmates with serious mental illnesses and other behavioral factors. These inmates are not only at a higher risk of committing suicide, but are at higher risk of being assaulted, raped and taking advantage of by other inmates. They are also more likely to end up in disciplinary confinement situations due to their behavior and lack of understand or following rules. 

It is equally unfair to severely mentally ill inmates and corrections officers who aren’t adequately trained to deal with them.

Educating jail staff on recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health problems to include signs that an inmate may be suicidal is invaluable. Also, addressing a jail culture that may be toxic or conducive to worsening mental health symptoms and increasing the likelihood that an inmate will attempt suicide is crucial.

Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with numerous inmate suicides and attempted suicides.  We never want to lose an inmate to an untimely death, especially one that could have been avoided, no matter if it’s an assault, a medical condition or suicide.

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Interview With A Hit Man

In my line of profession, I often talk to people who have committed horrendous crimes, including murder. It is not uncommon for me to have spoken to half of dozen people each day who have been convicted of killing someone else. It is rare, however, for me to speak with someone who has been convicted of killing multiple people. A serial killer if you will, but this man, Jose Martinez is a dangerous Hit Man.

I won’t say more as I don’t want to be in violation of his HIPPA rights or violate any other codes of ethic, so here’s a public video showing an interview with Mr. Jose Martinez.

Violence And The Mentally Ill

Violence And The Mentally Ill

Many people believe that all violent, sadistic and dangerous people in our society are mentally ill, thus coming to the conclusion that mentally ill people are dangerous.

The truth is, people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Only about 3% to 5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals with a serious mental illness.

Many movies depict violent characters as being mentally ill and often the news continuously replays stories of the rare occurrences when someone with a mental illness acted out in violence. We start to associate mental illness with violence.

One of society’s biggest fears are acts of violence that are senseless, random, unprovoked and unpredictable and thanks to the media, we often associate this with mental illness. We somehow take more comfort in knowing a man was stabbed to death walking down the street during a robbery than if he was stabbed to death walking down the street for no apparent reason.

This stigmatization is just one of many things people with a mental illness face. I have often heard people say they were afraid of a suicidal individual or someone who self-injured themselves: “If they would do that to themselves, what do you think they would do to me?” The fact is, most suicidal and self-harming individuals would rather hurt themselves before they would hurt anyone else.

While it is rare, people with mental illnesses, just like anyone else in the general population, can act out in violence. Individuals who have a substance abuse disorder alone are much more likely to become violent than the general public, including those individuals who have a mental illness alone or an associated substance abuse disorder.

However, when it comes to dealing with mental illness, individuals who abuse substances, have a co-occurring mental disorder and are non-compliant with their medication are at higher risk of committing violence.

Even with the combination of substance abuse and non-medication compliance, the general public are not at high risk of being attacked by someone with a mental illness. People who are in close relationship with these individuals such as family and friends, especially if they have troubled relationships and/or are financial dependence are more likely to become victims of violence.

Some of the most predictive variables for violence untreated psychotic symptoms to include suspicion/paranoia, hostility, severe hallucinations and poor insight into their delusions and the overall mental illness.

A Tragic Example

I recently spoke to a young man who appears to have had his first psychotic episode, at-least as far as he knows. He’s in his early twenties and at the prime age for the onset of many psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia.

One day last week he was home watching YouTube videos and became paranoid that someone was going to come and rape his mother. Alarmed and frightened, he armed himself, first with a shotgun, but discovering the shot gun was not operational, he armed himself with a handgun. He proceeded to guard the house from what he thought were real threats to his mother, some mysterious intruder/rapist. What happened next rocked the whole community.

At some point, his mother came downstairs and he shot her twice in the head. He then shot their dog twice in the head as well before setting the house on fire and rowing a boat across a lake. According to the people who were at that house, he came out of the boat shirtless, walking slowly and looking like Jason from Friday the 13th.  He was chased away by the homeowner and ran off into the woods. Soon after he turned himself into authorities and the totality of his behavior was brought to light. When the authorities went to his burned down home they found the charred body of his mother and their dog.

I have worked with a lot of individuals who were experiencing their first psychotic episodes, but I have never spoken to someone so young that went from apparently “normal” to acting out so violently in response to paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

Most individuals, who develop a psychotic disorder or any mental illness for the most part, start off with small signs and symptoms that if left untreated, can lead to worsening symptoms and rarely horrible things like suicide or violence. Usually this takes several months to years to decompensate to this level. It’s very rare for someone’s first psychotic episode to turn out so violent, causing death and destruction.

Thankfully, situations like that are extremely rare.

Warning Signs

Some warning signs to look out for when dealing with anyone, not just someone with a mental illness include:

  • Pacing
  • Psychomotor Agitation (i.e., leg bouncing rapidly)
  • Combative posturing (i.e., fist balled up)
  • Paranoid or threatening remarks
  • Irritability
  • Talking to self in language that includes violence or paranoia

If you see these behaviors, it may or may not mean that the person has a mental illness, but these are signs that someone is possibly in a volatile state. Stay calm, give them space, avoid intimidating eye contact.

If you have to deal with the person because they are a friend, family member or even a customer in your place of business, use a calm/soothing voice, helpful attitude, avoid loud noises, remove potentially dangerous objects and attempt to give positive reinforcement until you can either get help or get out of the situation.

We all probably know someone with a mental health problem and many of us don’t even know it because most individuals with mental health problems are productive members of our community.

When we destigmatize the violence associated with being mentally ill, we make it easier for those individuals to seek treatment and to talk about it with their family and friends instead of hiding it out of fear or shame.