December 14, 2012. In a psychiatric hospital just north of New York City, I’m interviewing André about his mania and depression. Together, we’re drafting his illness timeline; that way, he can share the essentials with his doctor in less than five minutes. Any longer, and doctors here get antsy, like rich people waiting in line.
“Isn’t this cheating?” André asks me.
“It’s studying,” I tell him.
“School would have been much easier had I known.”
“I hear you,” I say, one of my stock replies on the ward.
New staffers often mistake me for one of them. I wear button-down shirts. My fellow patients comment on how normal I look. Dress for the job you want, I tell them.
Another reason I resemble a staffer: I actually speak with the other patients. I probably could sneak out, “elope” is the official term, but then someone might get fired.
“You hear that?” André asks.
Down the hall, past the nurses’ station, there are gasps and crying. He and I follow the noise into the activities room where the other patients cluster around the TV. José repeats: “it’s horrible, horrible.” Children have been murdered at their elementary school.
“How could anyone . . .” travels from patient to patient, like a flask.
“Mental illness” echoes among the journalists.
Another patient says my thoughts exactly: “Please don’t let him have bipolar.”
We’re in the ward for mood and personality disorders: borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, and—the most common diagnosis here—bipolar disorder. The last time I was locked in this ward, three years prior, I told another patient: “Bipolar seems to be over-diagnosed, don’t you think? Seems like everybody here has it.” And she explained:“Almost everybody here does have it. You are on the ward for mood and personality disorders.”
No one says much the rest of the day.
“Can you imagine losing a child like that?” André asks me.
I think of my dad, whose daughter died in a car accident when she was sixteen. I’m named after her.
“I don’t think you ever get over it,” I tell André.
The day after the shooting, a new patient arrives with a swastika tattooed on his neck. The nurses initially assigned him to a room with a Jewish patient, but then the Jewish patient asked them if they were crazy. Now the Jewish patient is crying in the quiet room, and the patient with the swastika is crying in the activities room. I’m reading on the couch—because I’ve been discouraged from reading in my room. The TV is on, like always. The past two days, all anyone here wants to watch is the news. The gunman’s diagnosis hasn’t been released, or if it has, I don’t know it. I’ve heard mentions of Asperger’s and schizophrenia.
The patient with the swastika joins me on the couch.
“I hate skinheads,” he says, scratching at the swastika. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a violent person.”
On the TV, parents are crying.
“I’m not like the monster who did that.”
It’s 2018, and I’m not here to make a new argument: mental health patients are not more violent than the rest of the population. The American Journal of Psychiatry released a 2006 study reporting that people with severe mental illness commit roughly one out of every 20 violent crimes. Most people with mental illness are never violent. One percent of psychiatric patients released from hospitals commit gun violence against strangers. Usually, the only violence that mental health patients commit is against themselves. So, we’ve known this for a while now, but—judging by news coverage and responses to news coverage—a lot of Americans still don’t believe this. Last November, after the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas—even NPR callers, who I’d expect more of, insisted that the mental health system was to blame.
This has all been on my mind—not because of a recent mass shooting but because one of my students killed herself a few days ago. I’m sad and confused and shocked—even though I remember feeling suicidal as a college student. I think of my history professor who noticed my pressured speech, elliptical thinking, and tears, and how—in reporting me to the campus health center—he probably saved my life.
I’m a creative nonfiction professor who’s deeply familiar with mental health issues. How could I not have seen my student needed help?
This is an excerpt. The full text of Jeannie Vanasco's "Too Rushed" can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 4.
Jeannie Vanasco is the author of The Glass Eye: A Memoir. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the New York Times, Prairie Schooner, the Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and on NewYorker.com. She lives in Baltimore and is an assistant professor of English at Towson University..