Mental Illness — Language & Perceptions

I am writing this blog on the day of the tragic shooting deaths of 20 children and eight adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many incidents over the past year (and before), this is an atrocious event that leaves us searching for answers. I am experiencing a mixture of both sympathy and utter disgust.

But, I am also feeling anger towards the extensive media coverage that was generated by the event. In the papers, blogs, news coverage, television discussion, etc. – I have repeatedly heard the mental status of the shooter reported in the most derogatory manner.

It may well be that the compromised wellness of the 20 year-old, young adult who perpetrated the shooting contributed to his decision and actions. But, all mental illnesses are not the same. It is like saying that all physical illnesses are the same and clearly they are not. The use of the broadest terms to describe someone’s purported mental state without addressing the type of illness, the impacts of that illness, the treatment options, the access to treatment, potential medications for the mental illness (and the implications of medications), etc. is inflammatory and disrespectful of millions of people around the world who live with mental illness. It doesn’t advance the education about what mental illness is and how best to support individuals and families that are impacted by mental illness. This level of reporting and dialogue takes us backwards in our thinking and perceptions of mental illness. It reinforces and normalizes stigma.

I live with a mental illness. It is depression. My experience with this illness has been a long and storied one. Given the stigma of mental illness, it took me years before I finally received the help that I needed. Since getting the help that I needed, my life has been improving by all measures that are important and my relationship with loved ones and, indeed, myself has improved greatly. For the most part, I feel well on most days.

I am experiencing many of the same feelings that people who do not live with a mental illness have been experiencing. I am shocked. I am distraught. I feel an intense love and renewed sense of protection of my own children. I am in disbelief that someone – anyone – could harm children, teachers and their own mother.

Working in the realm of social policy and planning, mental illness emerges in a range of circumstances, across the entire spectrum from wellness to illness. The stigma that clients of programs experience is, at times, overwhelming. As human service professionals, we promote the need to get mental illness out of the shadows and into the light. We promote dignity and empowerment. We speak a language of wellness. We teach and support practitioners in promoting recovery. We want people who have lived experience with a mental illness to educate others about all aspects of his/her person — they are more than a diagnosis, more than the behavior or feelings of his/her symptoms and definitely more than his/her mental illness.

When mental illness is talked about in a sweeping sense rather than a specific sense, it is a slap in the face to the work and progress over recent years to respect the experience of people with compromised mental wellness. A level of dialogue that uses a broad, stigmatizing position to make a point on the subject casts mental illness as evil.

Let’s consider the facts.

Yes, people with a Severe Mental Illness are in a state where the probability of violence is higher than people who do not have a Severe Mental Illness. This is true most specifically of those individuals that have UNTREATED symptoms of schizophrenia with psychosis, major depression and bi-polar mood disorder. Epidemiological studies and peer-reviewed journals in psychiatry, however, demonstrate some clear facts:

  • Mental illness is not a major contributor to violence in any community;
  • Most people with a Severe Mental Illness are NEVER violent;
  • Most crimes are NOT committed by people with a Severe Mental Illness;
  • People with a mental illness are more likely to be violent to themselves rather than others, with suicide the most heinous form of violence committed against oneself;
  • The United States, which has a high rate of homicide compared to other nations, has only 10% of homicides committed by people with a Severe Mental Illness – the remaining 90% are committed by people who do not have mental illness;
  • People with a mental illness, including those with a Severe Mental Illness are MORE LIKELY to be a victim of violence rather than a perpetrator of violence.

Negative portrayals of mental illness that were reported today by mainstream and social media enhances the stigma and may discourage people from seeking help to treat their mental illness. They have heard, once again, that having a mental illness makes them a deviant person or, based on the horror today at Sandy Hook, a child killer.

And, so I ask that we use the power of our shared grief about this tragic event to better understand mental illness, the differences and variations of mental illness, and the professional supports that are available and necessary. We CAN create an inclusive society where the stigma of mental illness no longer exists.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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