Let’s Talk about Brain Health and Brain Illness Instead...

By ~ 3 min read

Getting mental illnesses taken as seriously as physical ones has been a long-lasting struggle. Medical insurance hasn’t always covered mental health treatments the way it routinely covers treatments for physical problems. And too often, uninformed laypersons assume that seriously depressed people, for example, should be able to just snap out of it.

In part because of the assumption that mental health is under our conscious control in a way that physical health is not, people suffering from mental health problems are more likely to be stigmatized. And that stigma, in turn, can stand in the way of seeking the help that is needed.

What if we could minimize the stigma and increase the likelihood that people would get the help they need simply by changing the words we use? Specifically, why not use “brain health” instead of “mental health” and “brain illness” instead of “mental illness”?

That’s a suggestion I first encountered in the gripping book written by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, who was one of the two school shooters in the Columbine massacre. She was inspired to use the brain terminology by a conversation she had with Dr. Jeremy Richman, a neuroscientist whose daughter Avielle was murdered in the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Here’s the key excerpt from A Mother’s Reckoning:

Dr. Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, a scientist and medical writer, founded the Avielle Foundation in their daughter’s honor, hoping to remove the stigma for people seeking help, to develop the concept of a ‘brain health checkup,’ and to identify behavioral and biochemical diagnostics to direct those at risk of violent behaviors.

In our conversation, Dr. Richman explained: “‘Mental’ is invisible. It comes with all the fear, trepidation, and stigma of things we don’t understand. But we know there are real, physical manifestations within the brain that can be imaged, measured, quantified, and understood. We need to move our understanding to the visible world of brain health and brain disease, which is tangible.”

The topic of this post is not about the usual theme of this “Single at Heart” blog. I do go outside the scope now and then. But I will make one connection. I was thinking about the fact that both Columbine shooters came from two-parent families, and that got me wondering how common that was.

After Columbine, the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education did an in-depth study of 37 school shootings, from 1974 (the first one) through May of 2000. The study found that nearly two-thirds of the attackers (63%) came from two-parent families. Of those 26 school shooters from two-parent homes, 18 of them were living with two biological parents and the other 8 with one biological parent and one stepparent. Only 19 percent (8 shooters) lived in single-parent homes and one other shooter split time between two biological parents. The other two attackers lived with a foster parent or legal guardian.

Data from 1980 (close to the time of the first school shooting) indicated that 19% of children lived in single-parent households. That percentage has increased steadily, with a Pew report of 2013 data putting the figure at 34%. It seems, then, that there are actually fewer school shooters from single-parent households than would be expected, based on the percentage of children living in single-parent households in the entire population.

Imagine if the statistics were reversed, and school shooters came disproportionately from single-parent households. We’d be hearing all about that. But no one is talking about the actual risk of growing up in a two-parent household.

A note on what this article is not about:

This is not an article about whether there is a link between serious psychological issues and violence. It is also not a statement of what the everyday lives of people with such issues are like. But since a reader interpreted it that way, I will quote a bit more from A Mother’s Reckoning (p. 152):

“I certainly do not mean to imply that Dylan’s brain health issues made him capable of the atrocities he would eventually enact. To do so would be to insult the hundreds of millions of people around the world living with depression and other mood disorders…

“Nor do I believe a crisis in brain health is necessarily an explanation for what Dylan did. The automatic conflation of violence and ‘craziness’ is not only painful for people who are suffering, it is incorrect…serious mental illness by itself is a risk factor for violence in just 4 percent of incidents. It is only when mental illness appears in combination with other risk factors – primarily drug and alcohol abuse – that the numbers increase…

“Most people living with mood disorders are not dangerous at all. As [Dr. Jeffrey] Swanson points out, though, there is some overlap between mental disorders and violence, and I cannot believe it’s productive for anyone when we take the conversation off the table.”


About Bella DePaulo, Ph.D Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Project Scientist, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

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