Ann Cannon: Paying tribute to those coping with mental illness who will never be a headline

First Published      Last Updated Apr 09 2015 11:56 am

The news that a German co-pilot deliberately crashed an airbus full of passengers into a mountainside is horrifying. It's been difficult to read about it, to imagine the last terrible moments when many of those passengers realized they were taking their last breaths. And now the rest of us are left behind to ask why — just as we always do in the face of another unspeakable tragedy.

Much of the discussion in the aftermath of the catastrophe has focused on the mental state of the young man responsible for the murder of so many innocent people. And what we've discovered is that the co-pilot had a mental illness rap sheet.

I always receive this kind of information with a sinking heart because of the reaction people inevitably have. Mentally ill individuals are not to be trusted because they fly airplanes into mountains! Or shoot up movie theaters! Or take students hostage! And without even realizing it, we have one more reason to distance ourselves from people who suffer from mental illnesses. We have one more reason to see them as the "other" — individuals who are different, who stand apart and mean us harm.

When I was growing up, stories about crazed escapees from the local mental hospital were slumber-party staples, just like stories about Ouija boards or graveyard Weeping Marys. I once told my father one of these stories when I was in junior high school and I'll never forget his reaction. He just shook his head and said, "Honey, most people with mental illness are no different than you and me."

I didn't fully understand or appreciate what he was saying then. But I do now.

Here's the thing. Like many of you, I have seen firsthand what mental illness can do to an individual and to the people who love that individual. Please believe me when I say I have more than a casual acquaintance with the suffering mental illness causes — especially if the illness goes undiagnosed or untreated. The pain and collateral damage can be harrowing. A close friend of ours who has suffered a great deal of physical hurt in his life maintains that his periodic bouts of clinical depression are far worse than broken bones. It's hard to move when despair is whistling through your head.

And yet so many people who do suffer from mental illnesses keep fighting to get out of bed, go to work, pay their bills, take care of their families, love their friends, read a book, check their email, watch a ball game, wash a car, prepare and eat a meal, search for something that will make them laugh, stand quiet on the front porch to marvel at the returning sound of birdsong in a spring tree.

That's what they do. They just keep fighting. And for every mentally ill person who does the unthinkable, there are so, so many more who will never be a headline, who will never be a news story.

I honor their grit and the courage of the people who love them.

Ann Cannon can be reached at acannon@sltrib.com or facebook.com/anncannontrib.