I wish I could tell you that this sort of an exchange wasn’t commonplace—that most of the people I encounter in my life have a better grasp on mental illness than my woefully misinformed dentist—but I can’t. Granted, the majority of people I come across aren’t as overt in the profession of their ignorance as Dr. Hackenbush, DDS was, but a good number of them hold the same dangerously ignorant preconceptions about mental illness as he does. By and large, Americans have a very difficult time talking about mental health issues—whether in public or in the privacy of their own homes. The only times that we engage in anything approaching a national dialogue on mental illness are after the suicide of a celebrity, as was the case in the wake of Robin Williams’s death, or after a high-profile shooting like those in Newtown and Aurora. In both cases, the discussions are usually short and without much consequence, but with the mass shootings, pundits, policy makers and politicians all too frequently take the bully pulpit in order to castigate the mentally ill shooters for their actions and to deflect justified criticism of lax gun regulations onto a mental healthcare system that they have little desire to overhaul.


The crime scene in Brooklyn around the police cruiser where 2 NYPD officers were shot and killed last week

The only times that mental health issues are given a pass in these sorts of shootings are when another political football proves to be more enticing option for those in power to focus on, as has been the case in the murder of New York Police Department Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. A 28-year old black man with a documented history of mental health issues and domestic violence charges, Brinsley broke into his ex-girlfriend’s house in the early morning hours of December 20th and put a gun to his head, threatening to kill himself. His ex-girlfriend, Shaneka Thompson, talked Brinsley out of committing suicide and was rewarded with a bullet to the stomach which nearly killed her. However, in light of his virulent, anti-government Instagram rants promising to put “wings on pigs” and dropping the names of victims of police violence like Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the narrative has focused predominantly on racial issues, with politicians like Rudy Giuliani and police union president Patrick Lynch taking the opportunity to erroneously blame a massive, international protest movement for the actions of one, mentally unstable individual.

It would be unreasonable to expect any sort of meaningful action on mental illness in America from these NYPD shootings. It has been more than 2 years since 20 children and 6 adults were shot to death in Newtown and there has yet to be any legislation passed by Congress to address the severe underfunding and poor implementation of mental healthcare in this country. Since the tragedy at Newtown there have been 21 fatal school shootings along with many more mass murders at businesses, military bases and private residences, and our collective sense of urgency to implement mental health and gun reform has actually waned. That dialogue we were all supposed to have about mental health never really happened and we are still frightfully ignorant as a society concerning how to treat the mentally ill in general, and the severely and persistently mentally ill in particular. 10 times as many mentally ill Americans are languishing in prisons than in mental hospitals and more than half of the 350 to 500 Americans killed by police each year have mental health issues. These facts should be alarming us into action, but most of us go through our lives blissfully unaware of the plight of the millions of Americans who have untreated mental illness. On a certain level, I suppose I should be grateful just to have diagnoses and medications prescribed to me for said diagnoses that my dentist can make inappropriate jokes about. A lot of folks aren’t even that lucky.