By Ben Ashley-Wurtmann, MHAM Policy and Outreach Associate
In the wake of the tragic shooting in Arizona, many people have been asking questions about the mental health system and how it responds to individuals who may be capable of violence. We believe that a strong health system is better able to handle individuals in crisis when it focuses on providing a strong continuum of care. When every case is an emergency, few people will get the kind of care they require. However, some of the discussion around the nation has been focused on the perceived danger presented by “the mentally ill.”
The truth is that people with mental illnesses vary greatly in terms of the symptoms they experience, the personalities they have, the experiences they have lived through, and the extent to which their illnesses affect their daily life. Simply put, there is no one experience of mental illness, or even a particular condition, such as schizophrenia.
An interesting article was posted by the Wall Street Journal, questioning the validity of link of violence and mental illness caught our attention.
But another, more recent study showed that people with schizophrenia are no more likely to commit violence than those without mental illness. That research did find an increased risk of violence among those with schizophrenia who are also using drugs or alcohol.
Complicating things is that even if someone with schizophrenia commits a violent act, the illness isn’t necessary[sic] the reason for the behavior, say experts. With regard to Loughner, “my concern is that people immediately leap to the explanation that [the mental illness is] the master answer to why he committed this crime,” says Swanson. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
These are both important points to keep in mind. Mental illnesses do not automatically make people violent, nor do they explain everything there is to know about a person. More than ever, the public understands that mental illnesses are biological and treatable. Unfortunately, this has not led to a reduction in stigma. This is an ongoing conversation at MHAM as we pursue our vision of improved lives for people with mental illnesses. You can find more about how stigma works and how we are changing our struggle against it in our recent newsletter (page 4), on our blog, in the news, or by contacting us at [email protected]
For me, the AZ tragedy is a reminder that because our lives are fragile and interconnected, we must be strong and active in our compassion for those around us. We are called to work toward a compassionate society that values all people, leaving behind the damaging practices of stigmatization and marginalization. Working toward effective, accessible care for those with mental illness is a part of working toward a society that truly cares about the life of each person. We can take inspiration from the stories of many of the victims’ volunteerism and careers in public service as we ask ourselves what our role in this work will be going forward.