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The District: rocked by extraordinary acts of madness


With a community dialogue on mental health set for Saturday in the District, here is a guide to some of the clinical terms that describe our most pressing disorders.

Delusion: a fixed, false belief.

“What I find very interesting after three years in this job is how many people come to Washington because of delusions about the president and the White House,” said Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist and chief clinical officer for the D.C. Department of Mental Health. “They think President Obama is stalking them. Or, they believe the Obamas are ‘in love’ with them and want to interact with them.”

Or they believe that the Obamas dislike them. Delusional, it seems to me, could also describe people who think they are somehow saving the country by shutting down the federal government.

About 400 people are expected to gather at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for a discussion about our state of mental health. The event, called “Creating Community Solutions DC,” coincides with Mental Illness Awareness Week — and also comes at a time when our world has been rocked by extraordinary acts of madness.

Aaron Alexis, the government contractor who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last month, believed he was being controlled by low-frequency radio waves. Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist who was shot by police after trying to ram her car into the White House last week, reportedly thought the president had locked down the federal government and placed her home under electronic surveillance.

A few days later, John Constantino died after self-immolation on the Mall. He, too, was mentally ill.

But let’s not overlook the signs of mental disorder in our everyday lives. Don’t just focus on harms done by delusional visitors. Put D.C. on the couch.

Narcissism: excessive preoccupation with personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.

As the income gap between rich and poor continues to widen in the District, the less fortunate are being left to fend for themselves. Old houses in black neighborhoods are being emptied out, torn down and renovated — sometimes releasing clouds of lead-filled dust. Mental retardation, violence and depression are byproducts of lead poisoning. Of course, by the time the symptoms begin to show, the victims will likely have been swept out of the city on a tide of gentrification.

Meanwhile, well-to-do newcomers flock to fancy restaurants and cafes — the city’s rebirth celebrated with expensive new wine shops and breweries — while the shelves at local food banks go bare.

Other words or phrases used to describe this behavior or people with this behavior include selfish, greedy, insensitive, stuck up, arrogant, ego-maniacs with an inferiority complex. (I have also used the word twits.)

“Mental illness touches all of our communities and many of our families,” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said in a statement announcing Saturday’s dialogue. “Too often, the issue is pushed into a corner and hidden, leaving our fellow citizens to struggle in silence to care for their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and colleagues. It’s time to end that silence.”

Anxiety: excessive, persistent and hard-to-control worry.

“The shutdown of the federal government has caused an incredible amount of turmoil for us,” said Shannon Hall, executive director of the D.C. Behavioral Health Association. The group represents 34 mental health and addiction treatment providers in the District. “Our clinics are in jeopardy of staff furloughs and we are having difficulty keeping the clients we have stable, let alone reaching others who are in need.”

About one in five of the nation’s youth are affected by a mental health condition, according to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. They include depression and anxiety, along with eating and developmental disorders that disrupt thinking, feeling, daily functioning and the ability to relate to others. Only 20 percent will get the help they need.

Post-traumatic stress disorder: severe anxiety resulting from exposure to extreme stress, serious injury or threat of death.

The District’s juvenile justice system is clogged with kids who have experienced trauma at the hands of family members, have witnessed assaults and killings on the streets, and been subject to threats of death themselves.

Now their neighborhoods are being flooded with K2 — a synthetic marijuana that is toxic and psychosis-inducing. What’s next, homemade heroin? Apparently, that’s here, too. Man-made opiates for the disgruntled poor children.

“One sign of a mentally healthy community is how well we deal with our most vulnerable citizens,” said Joseph Wright, a pediatrician and vice president for community affairs at Children’s Hospital. In the District, one out of three black children is poor. “What does it say about our mindset when we tolerate so many children living in poverty?”


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