For the mentally ill, a stigma hard to shake

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Photo: Evan Walsh

It has become a natural reaction after public shootings and other heinous crimes to question whether the perpetrator was suffering from a mental illness. And this kind of conversation might be fruitful if it was not conducted so indelicately. Oftentimes, the discussion following these gruesome events fuels the stigmatization, fear, and misconceptions surrounding psychiatric illness.

Although mental illness has come to have violence attached to it, in actuality, a majority of individuals that receive the proper medical attention for their psychiatric problems do not perpetrate any violent crimes.  In fact, Mental Health Reporting says “people with severe mental illnesses…are 2 1/2 times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population.” It is when an individual struggling with this issue is afraid to seek help or divulge his/her secret that problems arise.

The fear of being ostracized, labeled as “crazy,” and discriminated against is embedded in the minds of many that live with mental illness. A person that leaves his schizophrenia untreated, begins seeing hallucinations, and tries to self-medicate with street drugs is more likely to commit violent crime. But if the conversation about mental health opens up in this country, the fear could subside for everyone.

The real issue is that Aaron Alexis, who wreaked havoc in a 2013 Washington navy yard shooting, was never screened for PTSD nor had he ever felt comfortable telling friends about the voices that haunted him. Richard Shoop, the New Jersey mall shooter, couldn’t be dragged out of crippling depression and like Alexis, didn’t feel comfortable telling friends about this struggle until three days prior to his suicide, as told to Breitbart News Network.

These men did not have their conditions dealt with in the same way that a hospital would tend to a broken leg. Even in our close personal circles, it is far more uncomfortable to discuss visits to a therapist than it is to talk about a yearly health check-up. The judgment and ignorance still surrounding this topic falls far behind medical advancements that have diagnosed mental health problems as legitimate conditions deserving of proper treatment.

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While what we talk about after an act of public violence might not need to change, how we talk about it definitely must. John Duby, chair of the Mental Health Leadership Workgroup, told CBS DC that he’s  “not sure there’s a single policy or program that could prevent the kind of terrible tragedy that” occurred in Newtown or the navy yard. Rather, it takes a combination of public awareness and conscious language choice to change the environment we live in. T.M Luhrmann wrote in the New York Times about how The Schizophrenia Research Foundation has conducted a study backing up that statement, suggesting that it is culture which influences the commands and voices heard by schizophrenics. If the language surrounding mental illness becomes understanding and constructive rather than ignorantly critical, we could see a real difference.

To help the language about mental health issues improve, we must also be more critical of the way conditions are depicted in the world around us. We indulge in stigmas when we watch the crazy cat lady on The Simpsons, the locked-up Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs, and the murderous escaped schizophrenic in CSI:NY. In reality, not every schizophrenic wanders the streets mumbling to themselves. Mental conditions present themselves in many ways and in a wide variety of people. The manic-depressive could be your co-worker and your friend could have been living with bipolar disorder for years without notice. These are people that do not fit the stereotypical model of a “basketcase,” proving that a discerning audience should begin to question the images of mental illness previously mentioned.

It is as if we are being taught that bipolar disorder or multiple personality is something that can be seen and is evident in the way a person looks. When people think of a schizophrenic, they do not entertain the idea of a clean-cut business man with a family. But considering 26 percent of Americans over 18 live with a psychiatric condition, as cited by the National Institute of Mental Health, it is wrong to create an archetype.

So try to be the friend who carries books for the classmate with a broken arm. Also strive to be the friend who provides support for the classmate that deliberately slept through all of their classes. His or her’s plight is the same and, believe it or not, you could be saving lives.