Individual Acts of Terror and Mental Illness: When “They” are “Us” and What We Can Do About It.

While the bomb blast in New York City last night (just a few blocks from where I live), was and is – unsettling and scary – it also gives us an opportunity to add to the conversation on “terror” and “terrorism” – and fear and panic – and how we react to the events around us.

While of course we need to be vigilant in our preparation for, and responses to, terrorist ideologies, we also want to make sure that we do not miss an opportunity to discuss something beyond the sexy sound bites of “terror cells” and “rogue terrorists.”

The time is right for a long-delayed conversation about mental health in this country. How we screen for people with mental health issues and how we support those who are struggling. As someone who works in mental health and tries to make myself available to as many people as possible, I can tell you that some of our most vulnerable populations are the people who are least likely to have access to care.

I can attest to working with clients with significant mental illnesses – with confusing and frightening symptoms – who have to make Herculean efforts to get to therapists, doctors and psychiatrists. We wind up asking people who struggle just to get through a day to navigate a system that would frustrate and anger and shame the best of us.

As we saw in Munich and Dallas (and on and on and on), in the global climate of bombings and terror and violence, people who are struggling with mental illness can become vulnerable to extreme ideologies because those ideologies can play into feelings of frustration and anger and paranoia. They can provide a feeling of belonging to a population who already feels marginalized and ignored.

We can, and we must, become a culture that becomes more aware of the people in our lives – as friends, as sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, families – as employers and co-workers – we owe it to one another to – notice each other – to become aware of signs of mental illness – of aggression – of depression – of isolation – and when we become aware of these things to know what to do and how to help.

Our country needs a better mental health care infrastructure.

We can, and we must, make mental health a normal part of our conception of “health in general” – and societal health.

While we confront, and must confront, the enormity of political terror organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda on a global scale with global strategies, we would also be wise to remember that many of those perpetrating individual acts of terror are not “global” – they are “us” – living in our communities, getting through a day, navigating lives, often isolated and unseen.

And while we may feel overwhelmed by global terror, unsure of what to do, we can find local strength identifying and helping vulnerable individuals in our communities BEFORE they become lost to the voices of anger and violence and hatred and fear – whether those voices are external from global terror organizations – or internal from very real mental illness.

As a country, as we struggle with solutions to “terror” – let’s remember to make mental health a part of the conversation.