Home > 2016 September/October > The Myths about Mental Illness

By Shavonda Bean 

Extreme violence has become all too common in America. We are often inundated with news, graphic images and details of mass shootings, terrorism and the very personal and frequent violence that occurs in domestic situations.  In the process of making sense of tragedy, the question of mental illness is often introduced into the conversation.

This hurried association of mental illness and mass violence elicits feelings of confusion, frustration and judgment for those diagnosed with mental health conditions. I know, because I hear it from my patients and so do others providing treatment. Imagine if your own health condition were associated with mass or extreme violence. A 2013 online study by McGinty, Webster and Barry found that viewing media associating mass shooting and mental illness increased respondents’ negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness, and increased support for gun restrictions among the same group. This is a frustrating and inaccurate portrayal of mental illness that increases stigma and can delay treatment. So, let’s talk about the truth.

The truth is that overall, mental illness alone can account for only 4 percent of those who commit violent crimes, based on information provided by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2014. The greater predictors of violence are past acts of violence or alcohol and drug abuse. More specifically, those who are male, in poverty, and abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to commit violent acts than those with mental illness alone. While those who suffer from severe and persistent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia can become violent during active hallucinations, the more startling truth is that those with severe mental illnesses are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than others and are more likely to commit violence against themselves through suicidal behavior. So mental illness alone cannot take the blame for mass violence.

An accurate understanding of these risks will help educate the community about the need for addressing substance abuse issues, poverty in our communities and enhanced treatment for those with a history of violence. It can help bridge the gaps between services and those in need, and help reduce the stigma.

What can you do to dispel the myths?

  • Be sure those around you, and especially children, understand how to process the violence they might be exposed to. More and more children have access to social media and need to talk about the violence they see and get answers to their questions. The earlier children have an understanding of mental health, the better.
  • Older children and teenagers are able to have more detailed conversations and search for ways to help. Engage them in the conversation about misperceptions and reiterate that having a mental illness alone does not make someone more likely to commit acts of violence.
  • Look for the positives in each situation. Often times, tragedy can bring out the best in humankind. Point out these examples and highlight the fact that people with physical and mental health conditions are helping their communities and are a part of resolving the problems.
  • Avoid using terms that increase stigma, such as “crazy” or “psycho” when referencing violence.

The truth is, many people with mental illnesses lead productive lives, are highly active in the community and on their jobs.  Adults must help decrease the stigma, and it starts in our own homes and with our family members and children.

Shavonda Bean is a licensed psychological associate and owner of Essential Assessments & Behavioral Health. Visit www.EssentialHealthNC.com for more information.


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