Whenever a friend calls or texts and tells me to turn on CNN; I instinctively brace for the worst.
Last week, it happened again. Armed with a shotgun, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, shot and killed 12 people inside the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command. The former Navy reservist and IT contractor was later killed by police.
All week, the talking heads have debated the merits of gun control. At a memorial service Sunday for the victims, President Barack Obama talked about preserving the constitutional rights of responsible gun owners while doing something to curb gun violence and keep guns away from the mentally ill.
In a world populated with brilliant minds, this is an issue we can’t seem to fix. Frankly, if the murders of innocent children and teachers in their classrooms didn’t prompt significant changes, nothing will.
Until Sandy Hook, I was more optimistic. Now, I’m thinking at least part of the answer starts with us. We’ve got to be more aware of the mental state of people we live and work with. We also have to be willing to stage interventions. And when it comes to family members with mental illness, we’ve got to stop being in denial.
In February 2011, our family learned this the hard way. My cousin, David Duerson, committed suicide.
A year younger than me, I mostly saw David at family reunions until I went to college in his hometown of Muncie, Ind. While there, we got together at least once a week. He’d come to campus and pick me up for church and family dinners. He introduced me to his friends and I went to his high school football games with his Mom. He was smart, confident and fun to be around.
I watched with pride as he went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship and later became team captain and Most Valuable Player. In 1983, he was drafted by the Chicago Bears and was part of the legendary 1985 Bears team that won the Super Bowl. He would go on to be named the NFL’s Man of the Year for his community service efforts.
David and I lost touch, except for the occasional family gathering or Facebook post. I knew he was doing well because his parents kept me up to date on his life after football, which included owning several businesses and staying active in the Chicago community.
When David took his own life, friends, family members and former teammates had no idea about his mental state. I knew he had struggled in recent years — a failed business, a divorce, bankruptcy and the loss of his beloved parents — but I never doubted that he’d make a strong comeback.
At the time of his death, he was engaged to be married in April of that year. Alone in his Florida condo, he crawled into bed, covered his body with an American flag, aimed a shotgun at his heart and pulled the trigger. It still hurts to think about the desperation he must have felt. I often pray for his children, siblings, ex-wife and fiance. I’m so glad his parents weren’t alive to see their youngest son take his life.
There is no way to step into someone’s head and know what is going on. But there are signs that a person may be about to harm himself or others. David knew his mind and body were failing him. He was forgetting things and suffered from physical pain — common for retired NFL players. In text messages to his ex-wife and son before he killed himself, David asked that his brain be donated to the National Football League’s brain bank at Boston University. He wanted researchers to study it for a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE.
The tests revealed the presence of CTE, a brain disease that has been detected in dozens of football players and boxers. It is caused by multiple concussions that never healed. People with CTE suffer from memory loss; and violent and impulsive behavior.
Part of me felt angry that David left three young adult sons and a teenage daughter behind to mourn his loss. As I think about it now, I’m glad he chose not to harm others.
None of us want to believe someone we love is capable of carrying out violent acts. In the case of Aaron Alexis, officials now say there were signs. While in the reserves, he was disciplined for disorderly conduct and insubordination. He reported to police that people were chasing him and he had an unusual obsession with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Mental illness is sometimes tricky to recognize and diagnose, especially if the person is in denial and is able to perform normal tasks, like going to work each day.
In the case of Adam Lanza, the signs were clearer. Before he burst into a Connecticut school and shot dozens of students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School, his mother told friends she was worried about her son, who spent unusual amounts of time playing violent video games and never socialized.
She reportedly talked to friends about trying to get him help. If only her son hadn’t had access to so many weapons in their home. You have to wonder if that would have slowed him down or stopped him altogether. Experts say if a person is intent on harming themselves or others, they will find a way.
Navigating mental illness is hardest for family members who sometimes watch helplessly as their loved ones spiral out of control. In most cases, there are signs that we shouldn’t ignore. But no one wants to believe their loved one would cause such harm.