Trial for Colorado Theater Shooting Brings Mental Health Stigma To Light

Allegory of Justice
It’s a conversation that no one wants to have, but it’s necessary: three years after James Holmes opened fire in a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, a Colorado jury now has to decide if Holmes is guilty of committing the atrocity with a clear mind or if he should be declared mentally ill.

For legal purposes, the jury’s decision will determine whether Holmes will be held liable for his actions, but in terms of social acceptance and healthcare opportunities, the case could increase the stigma of mental illness.

It seems fitting that Holmes’ trial should take place during May, which is National Mental Health Month in the U.S., and it’s the perfect opportunity to examine what’s working — and not working — with the national conversation about mental health.

What’s Working:

More lawmakers across the country have begun allocating time and money to create programs that aim to educate and provide treatment before a mental health situation gets out of control.

Additionally, a handful of studies have found that natural substances — not pharmaceutical drugs — can provide relief for conditions like depression and anxiety, and without the terrible side effects that most drugs have.

More Americans are recognizing the benefits of medical marijuana, for example. And more studies are finding that other natural biological factors, like low testosterone levels — which start decreasing around age 30 — may increase an individual’s risk for developing depression.

What’s Not Working:

In the case of Holmes, the jury must decide if the 27-year-old man truly understood the implications of opening fire in a crowded movie theater. His attorneys, according to CBS Denver, state that Holmes suffers from schizophrenia and cannot always distinguish right from wrong. The prosecuting attorneys argue that Holmes is perfectly healthy, and they are seeking the death penalty.

At no point does the media emphasize that a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict means that Holmes will be locked up in a mental health hospital, for the rest of his life, with no hope of getting out.

News sources also report that Holmes led a fairly privileged life and was a brilliant student at the University of Colorado; he had endless opportunities, until he began failing exams that required teamwork and oral presentations. When Holmes began falling behind in his classes, prosecutors have argued, he needed a way to boost his self esteem; he knew perfectly well that he would be recognized publicly for his actions.

It is rarely mentioned that mental illness can affect anyone; furthermore, if the jury decides that Holmes was suffering a psychotic breakdown at the time of the shooting, it emphasizes that anyone with schizophrenia might snap and cause widespread destruction in an attempt to feel better.

The jury’s decision won’t bring back the 12 people who died in the shooting, nor will it fix the injuries of 70 additional victims who survived. But as the trial continues, the way American culture handles mental health stigma will be shaped by the conversations and questions in that one Colorado court room.

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