Violence and mental illness and its stigma

By Ryan Robbins

Mad. Crazy. Insane. Demented. Deranged. Loony. Psycho. Dangerous. These are all words used by the public to describe people who have a mental illness.
If there is anything to be learned from last month's brutal attack on four nuns in Waterville that left two dead, it is mental illnesses are still the most misunderstood and stigmatized diseases.
The nuns' attacker, Mark Bechard, had a long history of mental illness. He had been hospitalized nine times for manic depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Since the attack, the media have irresponsibly nourished the public's fear of the mentally ill, a fear that has been around for centuries.
WLBZ-TV, Bangor, did a story about whether the mentally ill should be allowed to live on their own. In a segment on the Feb. 16 edition of Dateline NBC, anchorman Tom Brokaw asked viewers whether laws that allow the mentally ill to "roam free" are endangering their lives.
Some state officials are considering restricting the rights of the mentally ill.
State Senate President Jeffrey Butland told the Maine Sunday Telegram in its Feb. 4 edition it is a "tough call" whether restrictions should be placed on the mentally ill. "But if we have to err, I'd rather see us err on the side of protecting the public."
Gov. Angus King agreed: "I think we owe the public some reasonable assurances their safety is not in jeopardy."
Such talk by state officials is disturbing. Lost in the frenzied wake of the Waterville tragedy is the admonition from Maine Department of Mental Health and Retardation Commissioner Melodie Peet: "Persons with mental illness are more fearful than aggressive and more likely to be victims than aggressors."
Unfortunately, the public believes the mentally ill are dangerous and need to be watched carefully. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a recent survey conducted in California found that 83 percent surveyed believed the mentally ill are dangerous. In reality, though, less than 2 percent of mentally ill people are dangerous, according to the institute -- a figure no higher than the incidence of violence in the general population.
Even more disheartening is the institute's finding that society holds ex-convicts in higher regard than people who've had a history of mental illness. Perhaps one reason for the public's scorn toward the mentally ill is the belief the mentally ill are somehow responsible for their disease, despite overwhelming evidence that mental illnesses are biologically based.
Some of history's most revered figures have suffered from mental illnesses. Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe bouts of depression, some of which took him to the brink of suicide. Winston Churchill suffered from manic depression during his stint as Britain's prime minister during World War II. Others who have experienced mental illness are Theodore Roosevelt, Ted Turner, Mark Twain, Robin Williams, Mike Wallace, former National Security adviser Robert McFarlane and special assistant to President Bill Clinton Robert Boorstin. The list goes on.
Patients of no other set of diseases are kept under such scrutiny by the public. Cancer patients who refuse chemotherapy are not taken to the hospital by the police and forced to get treatment.
Laws that seek to curtail the rights of the mentally ill -- the right to be left alone, the right to refuse treatment -- are damaging to the dignity of the mentally ill. The laws would only deepen the stigma and would serve only to drive the mentally ill into hiding when they should be getting help.
The mentally ill face more obstacles in society than any other segment of the population. In many cases the stigma is far more disabling than the illness itself. They find it difficult to find jobs and make friends. To further frustrate matters, those close to the mentally ill are not likely to offer as much support as they would if the mentally ill patient had cancer or even AIDS instead. As a consequence of this and the intense pain severe mental illness can cause, more than 30,000 people commit suicide each year, roughly the same number of AIDS-related deaths.
How far has society come since the first mental hospital opened in Williamsburg, Va., in 1773? While the hospital was the first to cater specifically to the mentally ill, it was nothing more than a prison, with patients shackled and abused. Committal was virtually a life sentence.
Today the mentally ill aren't treated much better. A 1980 study found that a substantial number of mental health care professionals harbored resentment toward their patients. When a student in an upper-level psychology course recently mentioned she was an intern at Bangor Mental Health Institute, the student in front of her joked, "You wouldn't happen to be going there for treatment, would you?"
Yet nobody would joke about heart disease.
In its brochure "The Stigma of Mental Illness," the NIMH says: "Historical physical abuse or neglect has been replaced by a less visible but no less damaging psychic cruelty. ... We no longer send (the mentally ill) to a far-away asylum. Instead, we isolate them socially, a much more artful though equally debilitating form of ostracism."
While mental illness can be frightening, its victims and survivors are not frightening themselves. Education, understanding and compassion are the keys to eliminating the shroud of stigma that envelops the mentally ill, and they can play an important part in the recovery of the mentally ill. It is time for the public to take note.

This column originally appeared in the March 20, 1996, edition of The Maine Campus, the University of Maine's campus newspaper.

Copyright 1996, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.
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