Your Aug. 4 article entitled “Murphy presses for mental health overhaul,” by prominently featuring references to recent tragedies, implies that mental illnesses are responsible for acts of mass violence. This myth, which has been thoughtlessly perpetuated by this article, only serves to increase the reluctance of people living with mental health conditions to disclose their illnesses and to seek the help they need, for fear of how others will react and the negative consequences that will follow: discrimination, isolation, and shame.
Sen. Chris Murphy’s legislation is a response to a very real need for better access to services for those with mental health problems and their families. The nation’s mental health system has suffered from years of chronic underfunding of our mental health system, and those who have the courage to overcome the societal barriers of fear and ignorance are often further punished by the discovery that there is no help available for them.
However, the implication that an improved mental health system will prevent acts of mass violence is simplistic and false.
In 1999, The Surgeon General of the United States issued a 458-page Report on Mental Health, which found that knowledge in the general public about mental illness has vastly improved since the 1950s. The average citizen knows that mental illnesses are real illnesses, that therapy helps, and that people they know have gotten better. Conversely, attitudes about those with mental illnesses have deteriorated greatly, and there is still so much stigma that most of those with mental illnesses will not get help.
The report suggests that the association with violence is the reason. How did this happen? Because after any horrifying and completely inexplicable act of mass violence, people search for an explanation that makes sense. They say, “It must have been a mental illness.”
And despite overwhelming evidence that people with mental illnesses as a group are no more violent than any other, attitudes in the general public have been heavily influenced by the media. Movies of the week and crime dramas feature “psychotic” serial killers. Media coverage sensationalizes acts of violence, and often makes unfounded assumptions that a psychiatric diagnosis is to blame.
Though the vast majority of those with mental health problems achieve successful recovery with the right combination of supports, mass media features few such examples. Articles like the one posted on August 4 reinforce myths and increase discrimination by making baseless associations and excluding the perspective of the advocacy community.
A far more significant predictor of violence is substance abuse — with or without a mental illness.
In fact, those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence —about 2 ½ times more than someone in the general population.
Interviewing someone from the mental health advocacy community would have resulted in an article that presented a far more balanced and accurate reflection of the issues, particularly that of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), or Involuntary Outpatient Commitment (IOC), as it is also known. Readers would have learned that there is no evidence that this practice is effective in promoting recovery or engagement with meaningful treatment, or that it prevents violence in our community.
It’s true that Connecticut is one of the few states that does not have an AOT/IOC law, but that’s because our state is a leader in recovery-oriented, person-centered services that are proven to be effective. Diverting resources to an unproven and ineffective practice would only further damage an already badly underfunded system, and offers an empty promise of safety to our communities.
As long as we scapegoat those with mental health problems in order to explain violence, we will waste our energy and resources on measures that penalize having or seeking help for mental health problems.
We must work to strengthen our mental health service system in a manner allows people to find the help they need when they need it, without fear or shame.
Jennifer J. Gross is the executive director of the Eastern Regional Mental Health Board, Inc.