I’ve been involved in what I thought would be a “forever war” for me for going on five years now. Of course, I’m talking about the “vaccine wars” where anti-science people continue to endanger the public by actively attempting to discredit vaccines and lowering herd immunity in different parts of the world. This is such a problem that there are now large and active measles outbreaks in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the United States (in North Carolina), there is also currently a measles outbreak associated with a non-vaccinating community. Needless to say, this subject is very important to me as an epidemiologist because I’ve seen first-hand what happens when children are not vaccinated.
I’ve seen children die.
Nevertheless, there was a significant event last week while I was visiting my dad and relatives in Mexico. A person near and dear to us attempted suicide. I won’t go into the details because I’m still shaken up about it. But I will tell you that it was very traumatic, and it has taken me a while to stop my brain from replaying the event on a continuous loop. My brain works like that, a blessing and a curse.
With my wife finishing up her master’s in mental health and with my upcoming entry to the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program, I’ve decided to take on a new “forever war”: Mental Health. While I would love it if it weren’t a “forever war,” a war that could last for a very long time, I’ve decided that it is a worthwhile thing to do. One needs to look at the events of the last few months to know this needs addressed, where people with mental health conditions have been blamed for mass shootings, ricin attacks, and of being a burden on society.
One of the first things I hear when someone does something heinous is that they “must be crazy.” People who say this don’t really know what mental diseases are all about. Even worse, they confuse neurodevelopmental delays, like autism, with mental disease. Just look at what people in prominent positions said about the shooter in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. As soon as someone mentioned he had Asperger’s, a form of autism, pundits began to scream things like, “See! Only the mentally disturbed kill others with guns!”
Someone asked me if I was angry at the person who tried to take their life last week. “No,” I replied, “not any more angry than I could be at someone with cancer.” It’s true. Mental disease like depression that leads to suicide is no more the victim’s fault than cancer. They didn’t ask for it. They didn’t go seek it. With a few exceptions, they did not bring it upon themselves of their own free will. And they need all the help they can get to live lives that are as close to normal as possible.
Will I abandon my fight against the anti-vaccine people of the world? I don’t know. I know that it doesn’t matter to me as much as my new target does. The petulant and misguided beliefs and actions of the anti-vaccine people are nothing compared to the policies and laws that make it very, very difficult for people with a mental condition to get the help they need to get better. And what can I say about the social stigma? Even I found myself trying to rationalize what happened last week, trying to get away from thinking that it was a suicide attempt and more towards it being an accident.
It was no accident, and I believe I experienced that for a reason. So it’s time, again, to get to work on yet another “forever war.”
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.