Originally created 03/30/02

Schiefer: Media stereotypes impede the mentally ill

EDITORIAL PAGE editor Suzanne Downing's March 12 column ("One 'mentally ill' killer after another") implies that mental illness is frequently used as a plea (or, as she seems to view it, an excuse) to avoid responsibility and therefore guilt for a crime.

"One after another" and "what about the next 'mentally disturbed' killer" promote the stigma that mental illness is connected to violent crimes and is running rampant. The media often depict mentally ill people as violent or homicidal. This strongly influences public attitudes and contributes to stereotyping.

This is but one of many stigmas that impedes mentally ill people from living productive, successful lives. Even their families buy into the ugly images the media have helped to create, usually out of fear or lack of accurate information.

HERE ARE SOME facts you can easily verify on the Internet:

The insanity defense is used in fewer than 1 percent of cases and only about a quarter of the time are they successful. Although 90 percent of defendants who plead insanity have been diagnosed with a mental illness, less than 15 percent are charged with murder. Most are charged for less serious crimes like auto theft or bad checks.

No one found "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty but mentally ill" is released the way an acquitted person is. Usually these people (depending on the state) are confined for treatment in a special hospital for mentally ill persons who've committed crimes. On average, people found not guilty by reason of insanity are held at least as long as, and often longer than, persons found guilty and sent to prison for similar acts.

With rapid advancements in medications, it is often possible for people with severe mental illnesses to recover and lead functional lives. Yes, medications can make a big difference. And proper medication management is very important. It is not just a matter of "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps," another popular stigma.

States that have replaced "not guilty by reason of insanity" with a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict are helping juries sort out factual guilt from defendants' ability to judge the morality of their actions.

Much research affirms that, contrary to media stereotypes, people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violent crimes.

Mentally ill patients are six times more likely to be murdered than the general population. The public and media should be more concerned with the vulnerability of these people to violence from others, not the other way around.

People are more likely to win a national lottery than to die at the hands of a mentally ill stranger.

High-profile murder cases involving schizophrenic patients have led the public to fear attacks from mentally ill people. These few cases are sensationalized when, in fact, they are extremely rare.

Over a 38-year period, the proportion of murders committed by mentally ill patients has declined by about 3 percent each year.

In any given year, an estimated 50 million Americans experience a mental disorder, and only about 25 percent of that number actually receive medical treatment or other helpful services.

Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, wrote in 1999 that "...our society has unintentionally shifted the burden of caring for many seriously mentally ill individuals from the mental health system to the criminal justice system. I have seen individuals who are living out the rest of their lives behind bars because they have created crimes that probably would not have been committed had they received mental health treatment. Prisons are not designed nor intended to be therapeutic environments..."

I implore The Chronicle, other members of the media and every single person still carrying the stigmas about mental illness to seek out the latest, most factual information available.

STIGMA IS ABOUT disrespect, barriers, discrimination, fear, mistrust and lack of support and services. Don't fall into the ignorance trap. Use sensationalized cases to consider all the people who are not receiving help for their illness.

(Editor's note: The writer, an occupational therapist from Evans, Ga., is program coordinator at Friendship Community Center.)


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