Humanizing Mental Illness

SPECIAL NOTE:   This article was written and submitted by Mike Weaver, NC CANSO board member and Executive Director of Mental Health Association of the Tar River Region.

After Christmas, and after picking up a friend at his house near Hartford, Connecticut, we were bogged down in Holiday traffic. We decided to get off onto highway 6 which parallels 84 and goes through Newtown. We saw the many shrines to those tragically killed there and could feel the pain in that beautiful New England village. Not many escaped the tragedy. I thought about the many mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and extended family members who would feel that day forever. I also thought about Adam Lanza and what he needed that day in order not to kill his mother, students and teachers and himself.

I also listened to talk show hosts and listeners as they espoused their views on gun laws, mental illness, commitment and other related topics. One talk show host clearly said, “the problem is not guns, it’s the mentally ill we need to deal with.” I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder since 1986 and after each shooting that involves a diagnosed person, the rhetoric ramps up. This time it is stronger and meaner toward those of us living with mental illness.
“The premise that we can predict or prevent violent acts is unsupported. Even in the case of severe mental illnesses, there is no special knowledge or ability to predict future behavior. The fact is people with mental health conditions are no more likely to be violent than is the general population.” (Dr. Wayne Lindstrom, MHA) “The truth is that nobody is able to predict behavior on the individual level. Psychologists and psychiatrists may be able to predict relative risks for groups, but that breaks down when we start looking at an individual person.”(Norman Hoffman, Phd.)

Actually, those with mental illness are eleven times more likely to be the recipient of violence than to commit violence. So, the next suggestion by many is that we need to commit more individuals with mental illness into locked wards and to force people into treatment. We can no longer go around locking up people because they act strangely, talk to themselves or have a mental illness. This is also financially impossible in our current environment. States have tried this. (Illinois lowered its standards to allow the commitment of virtually every person with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.) There are not enough beds and do we want to return to the world of those with mentally illnesses peering out of state institution windows for a lifetime?

Rather than committing large groups of people and forcing people into treatment, it would be more humane and cost effective to dedicate adequate resources toward prevention, early intervention and recovery oriented services which have positive outcomes. We need to treat people as people and not as diagnoses. It is not about normalizing mental illness any more than normalizing cancer. We need to humanize it so that those living with a mental illness and their family members don’t become the scapegoats for every shooting in America.

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