Jackie Peterson, B&W Staff

EDIT DESK: The violent stigma around mental health issues


Jackie Peterson, B&W Staff

Mental health and violence have been a dynamic duo in the news of late. Every time there’s a shooting, a violent crime, a rape…mental health seems to be the blame. Some people are crying for those with mental health issues to be put in inpatient facilities or locked away, some are calling for better mental health treatments and some are just quickly developing a decidedly negative attitude toward those with mental illness.

According to the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, Americans are vastly misinformed about the link between mental illnesses and violence. They cite many longitudinal studies, short term studies and professors, all of whom conclude that the vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill. They add that not only are the mentally ill a very small portion of violent people, but they are more likely to be victims of crimes: “People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime (Appleby, et al., 2001). People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999).” NPR.org also agreed with this stance, saying that while 60 percent of the population thinks schizophrenics are likely to be violent, one in four schizophrenics will actually be the victim of a violent crime.

These inaccuracies being spread throughout the general population are creating stigma and false conclusions. A longitudinal study of Americans’ attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.” Also, the researchers write, “the vast majority of Americans believe that persons with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves (Pescosolido, et al., 1996, Pescosolido et al., 1999).” The media, of course, perpetuates these stereotypes. Even in 1995, the site states, the media was portraying the mentally ill as violent.

Almost every website I went to said the same thing. Sure, some of them were off the beaten path, but even mentalhealth.gov says: “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.” They also acknowledge that the number of people in American with a mental health issue is enormous. In 2011, they said, one in five Americans experienced a mental health issue. Rounding the US population down to 316,000,000, that would be 63,200,000 people. It’s extremely likely that you know someone with a mental health issue, even if you aren’t aware of it.

The reason for the vast majority of violent crimes in America isn’t mental illness. An article by Laura Hayes on Slate.com takes the stance that anger is the root cause and, quoting Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, says: “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” The article goes on to argue that citizens ignore the violent histories of perpetrators, previous behaviors, substance abuse problems or other factors. They do, however, focus on mental illness. “What the perpetrators have in common in every single one of these cases,” Hayes says, “is a loss of control of their anger.” Not a mental illness.

The cultural issue of anger management hasn’t really been talked about but is extremely important if we are to reduce violent crime. Things like sexual abuse; assault; violence toward spouses and children; violent robberies and rape can all be attributed to mismanagement of anger, Hayes said.

While the stance that anger is the true root of our violence problems has yet to be proven, it’s obvious that the mentally ill are not to blame at all. In fact, according to mentalillnesspolicy.org, the mentally ill without substance abuse problems only make up three percent of homicides. That means 97 percent — the overwhelming majority — are committed by those without mental illnesses.

Maybe we should start treating those with mental illnesses as the human beings they are, rather than regarding them as a false threat.

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