As headlines about the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas begin to slowly fade, Americans are left with questions. The biggest one, perhaps, is why. Why would someone commit such a murderous act? Was Stephen Paddock mentally ill?
Dr. Naveen Cherukuri spends his days treating patients who suffer from severe mental illness. The vice-chief of staff at St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Center in Phoenix also serves on the medical staff at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital.
“The vast majority of the mentally ill don’t cause problems for themselves or others, but my patients are the exceptions,” Dr. Cherukuri said. “They’re the ones who have caused a lot of problems for other people.”
They also tend to grab headlines. Of course, not everyone who struggles with mental health perpetrates violence; millions of Americans are locked in an ongoing battle against debilitating depression. Many suffer in silence, not getting the care they need because of the ongoing stigma associated with mental health issues. So how does a society begin to break down those barriers and make it acceptable for people to admit they need help?
“I think the first thing is by noticing how common it is and how prominent it is, even in our history,” Cherukuri said. “Depression and mood disorders—they’ve been here for a long time.”
From Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey and Terry Bradshaw, Americans have plenty of examples of successful, functional adults who have struggled with depression. The lingering perception that mental illness is a character defect can stop people from getting the help they need.
“They don’t want to be labeled crazy,” Cherukuri said. “They don’t want to be labeled weak and they don’t want that stigma of having mental illness.”
“The sad part is that we have newer medications that can help people with depression and we can make it so that it’s not so bad.”
Having a mental health issue is often related to what’s happening around us. From the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession and the ongoing terror attacks, we live in a stressful world. Cherukuri said he thinks a lot of people are still suffering the effects of those things.
He remembers the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the patients he treated in its wake.
“They were functional, they were perfectly fine before, but what happened was that the economy tanked, they lost their job, then they lost their house and they became homeless or were living with family. They were very depressed,” Cherukuri said. “It wasn’t anything they did or didn’t do.”
Many of those who survived earlier trauma are still dealing with it. Cherukuri said that as he was watching the coverage of the Las Vegas shooting, his mind turned to those who had unresolved PTSD or other mental health issues.
“When I was watching the tapes of the shootings, I could easily imagine someone who came back from the Iraq war, if they’re struggling with mental illness or PTSD. That could exacerbate their symptoms, just seeing those videos. Even people who have had treatment—that would be something very hard to deal with.”
So what should you do if a loved one is suffering but won’t seek help?
“That’s a tough one. I would start by telling them that mental illness, depressive symptoms, happen to everyone. Mood disorders are very prominent and that we live in a society that causes a great deal of anxiety and stress,” Cherukuri said.
“You have to think of mental illness as a chronic condition. People want to think it’s something short term. It’s the equivalent of diabetes or hypertension or a heart issue: You have to take care of it and you can’t ignore it.”