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What the Media Should Be Saying About Mental Illness

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Hopefully, the horrors of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting will lead to a more sensible attitude to violence and mental illness and to improved treatment for the hardest to treat. Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, mental health bureaucrats repeat their mantra that violence is not typical for the mentally ill who are more often the victims rather than the perpetrators.

But, as I pointed out in an earlier post, the Mental Health Commission of Canada's usual response is to try to convince the media not to report these violent acts for fear of increasing stigma towards the mentally ill. The Commission has been quiet about Newtown but not Dr. Catherine Zahn, the CEO of the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. In her Christmas blog, she stated:

"In the rare instance when violence arises from an acute mental illness, it's a health problem. We need to help people in this situation to master their illness rather than condemn them.  They, along with everyone who has a psychotic illness, deserve a well-resourced system of mental health care with services based on recovery principles, bolstered by policies of social inclusion that reduce prejudice and discrimination.  When harm comes to innocent people, it must be acknowledged and addressed.  But, the goal is to move toward better health care, not amplified rejection and exclusion."

D. J. Jaffe, the executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, writing in the National Review wondered just who is crazy. He points out that, "In the wake of incidents such as the one at Newtown, the experts immediately issue press releases claiming that people with mental illness are no more violent than others." He then added that "Studies of the 5 per cent subgroup of the most seriously mentally ill who are not in treatment and are psychotic, delusional, or hallucinating, or are off treatment that has previously prevented them from being violent, are in fact more prone to violence than others. When people ask whether the mentally ill are more violent, they usually mean this group of severely ill individuals and not about their friends on Zoloft, Prozac, etc."

Lumping in a small potentially violent untreated group with a larger non-violent group statistically eliminates the tendency for violence. How to lie with statistics 101.

Writing in the Washington Post, Asra Q Nomani, described how her own mother lived in fear of her son's violence from untreated schizophrenia "taking blows through the years, one time landing in the emergency room with cracked ribs" as many mothers do who struggle to help their psychotic kids when society will not. Today, Nomani's brother is treated and is doing well.

Paul Steinberg, a psychiatrist writing in the New York Times stated, "Too many people with acute schizophrenia have gone untreated. There have been too many Glocks, too many kids and adults cut down in their prime. Enough already." He added:

"Medication and treatment work. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia, treated or untreated, are not violent, though they are more likely than others to commit violent crimes. When treated with medication after a rampage, many perpetrators who have shown signs of schizophrenia -- including John Lennon's killer and Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin -- have recognized the heinousness of their actions and expressed deep remorse."

Dr Steven R. Pliszka in the Statesman said that, "Today we have thousands of mentally ill persons wandering our streets or living in decrepit boarding homes, refusing to take needed medications and, in some cases, committing acts of aggression against themselves, their families and the community. Many people have 'a state hospital in the back bedroom' -- a child or sibling who withdraws from society and shows signs of serious mental illness."

He ended his article with:

"Some patients need long-term care. This is not denying liberty to any person; it is freeing a mind enslaved by mental illness. Most critically, legislators should reject those who seek to put restrictions on psychiatric hospitalization or treatment with psychiatric medication. If we will place more barriers to treatment of the mentally ill, then the tragedy of Newton may be repeated many times more."

And, again in the New York Times, Joe Nocera wrote that rules about involuntary treatment "are built upon a delusion: that the sickest among us should always be in control of their own treatment, and that deinstitutionalization is the more humane route. That is not always the case."

But, in light of two recent murders on the New York subway system when innocent people were pushed in front of trains, we should give a final word to infamous subway pusher Andrew Goldstein who killed Kendra Webdale in 1999 and ushered in New York State's Kendra's Law.

As Goldstein said in a New York Post article, "Should you let a mental patient like myself be in freedom so an incident like train-pushing can occur? If you are a harm to anyone, even yourself, you should be hospitalized." Goldstein is now lucid because he's forced to take his medication.

Let us not allow the deaths of so many innocent young lives to be wasted without some good coming of this loss. Maybe this tragedy can force our lawmakers and mental health bureaucrats to start working to ensure that those who live in an untreated psychotic hell and have the potential to cause harm to themselves, their families and to innocent bystanders can be treated.