by Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA
Muffy Walker, of the International Bipolar Foundation, writes a mental health column for KRL every other month.
Last week I received a call from a colleague inquiring whether I had heard about the recent homicide that occurred not too far from where I live. I had not, but quickly researched the incident.
My colleague wasn’t calling to be gossipy, but rather to alert me, since the alleged perpetrator has a mental illness. At the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF), we are always particularly sensitive to crimes committed by those with mental illnesses. Because of a common myth that people with a severe mental illness are usually dangerous and violent, we work very hard to educate the public and journalists to erase the associated stigma.
According to a survey of public attitudes by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Mass media is, far and away, the public’s primary source of information about mental illnesses.”
Although much of our past experience with media’s coverage of the mentally ill has been negative, they do offer our best hope for eradicating stigma because of their power to educate and influence public opinion. Journalists in all forms of media play an increasingly important role in shaping public understanding and debate about health care issues.
As part of a national effort to reduce negative attitudes and discrimination associated with mental illnesses, IBPF responds to relevant news’ stories. If the journalist reports accurately on the mental health issue, we thank and commend them. If they don’t, we educate them on the downward spiraling perils of negative attitudes and discrimination and explain the importance of increasing the dignity and rights of citizenship for persons with mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, in many cases when a person with a mental illness does carry out a violent crime, the public assumes that all (or most) people with that disease are likewise violent. Contrary to that belief, according to NARSAD, statistics show that the incidence of violence in people who have a brain disorder is not much higher than it is in the general population. Those suffering from a psychosis such as schizophrenia are actually more often frightened, confused and despairing than violent.
I am a psychiatric nurse and have worked in hospitals; both locked and unlocked units, outpatient facilities, and state and federal prisons. Over the course of 20 years, only once did a patient threaten me. On the other hand, in my personal life, on several occasions men [with guns] have physically threatened me.
IBPF is working to educate the masses about mental illness and stigma, but we need your help! We are the originator of the California Mental Health No Stigma Week, which is now also a bill in front of Congress to become federal law. Unfortunately, it is stalled in committee, but you can help by writing to Chairman Issa. Here is a sample letter:
Your full name
Your post office box or street address
Your town, state and zip
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Chairman Darrell Issa
2157 Rayburn House Office Building,
Washington, DC 20515
RE: H.R. ES 572 Resolution for designation of the first full week of May as ‘‘National Mental Health No Stigma Week’’
Dear Chairman Darrell Issa:
I am writing to you to express my support for the H.R. ES 572 Resolution for designation of the first full week of May as ‘‘National Mental Health No Stigma Week’’, and I am asking that you also support it by bringing it to the floor.
As you may already be aware, a similar resolution was passed in California; ACR-110 California Mental Health No Stigma Week.
YOUR PERSONAL STORY WHY YOU THINK THERE SHOULDN’T BE STIGMA
• Keep it short, 3-5 lines MAX
• If you LIVE IN CALIFORNIA SAY SO (Issa is a CA Congressman)
As a result, it is my strong opinion that your committee should approve this resolution.
Thank you for your time and interest.
(If you type and print out the letter sign your name in blue or black ink)
Type Your name
Check out Muffy’s article about surviving the holidays with mental illness.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.