I am Schizophrenic: Understanding mental illness in the wake of the Newtown, CT tragedy

Death and Taxes reader Michael Hedrick emailed us over the weekend with this arresting article, which also appears on his blog. We thought we’d share it with you. He asks that for more information on mental illness in America, you visit NAMI.org. – Ned H.

I am schizophrenic. Or rather, I have schizophrenia.

I’ve been told many times by mental health professionals and peers in my situation over my years of recovery that I should not identify myself as the illness. I see their point.

I am still a human being; I still contribute to society and I still have thoughts, feelings and emotions just like any other person. Although sometimes those thoughts, feelings and emotions are a bit more intense than what the average joe would experience.

Being that I am still a human being, I deserve to be treated like one.

Many times after a tragedy like the one in Newtown, CT, I overhear discussions in public and across news media about what kind of person would commit such an unspeakable act.

Those discussions are, many times, riddled with iterations of the words “crazy” or “mentally ill” which bothers me.

I am not unbalanced, I am not deficient, and I am not a gun toting mass murderer.

In fact, ask any one of my friends or family members and they will tell you I am one of the kindest, most gentle, and perhaps most level headed men they know. I am not alone in that either.

A study by researchers at North Carolina State and Duke universities has found that “people with severe mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis – are 2 1/2 times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population.” ABC NEWS.

What’s more, “61 percent of Americans think that people with schizophrenia are likely to be dangerous to others.” according to “Mental Health: A report of the Surgeon General”

Even further, this notion is unfairly perpetuated in nearly every facet of media.

I’ll just paste this excerpt from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s “Understanding Mental Illness Factsheet”

The National Mental Health Association reported that, according to a survey for the Screen Actors’ Guild, characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups: 60 percent were shown to be involved in crime or violence (three times the average rate). In addition, “[s]tudies showed that as many as 75 percent of stories dealing with mental illness focus on violence (Shain and Phillips 1991). Although more recent research suggests the prevalence of these kinds of stories is diminishing (Wahl, et al. 2002), at least a third of stories continue to focus on dangerousness. Also, the vast majority of remaining stories on mental illness either focus on other negative characteristics related to people with the disorder (e.g., unpredictability and unsociability) or on medical treatments. Notably absent are positive stories that highlight recovery of many persons with even the most serious of mental illnesses (Wahl, et al. 2002).

Frankly, I’m more than bothered that the only time mental health comes up in public discourse is in the midst of a horrible tragedy.

It only adds to the negative image most Americans have of people that have mental illness.

There exists a stigma with mental illness that many times can be worse to deal with than the illness itself.

It’s unfair that people with mental illness are treated less than human.

The stigma permeates nearly every facet of society.

One needs only ask a person afflicted if the people they thought were their friends, or even family, treated them differently or even stuck around after their diagnosis was shared, or worse, whispered about. I know this from personal experience.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there are 7 billion people in the world.

Unfortunately, about 1% of those people lives day in, day out, never knowing if they can trust their own thoughts, and people scorn them because of it.

It has been reiterated and reiterated to me that mental illness is a disease of the brain, as diabetes is a disease of the pancreas.

It is not a result of weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. It is an illness.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that an even smaller segment of those 1% diagnosed will lose control somehow, and in the midst of intense psychosis decide to turn to violence.

In their violence they will become notorious and their names will be repeated in infamy. Names like Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris or Adam Lanza.

Further, their behavior will be remembered, and people will always try to find a reason for that behavior.

Most times, they’ll chalk it up to a nasty, horrific disorder they barely understand that goes by the name “mental illness”.

We are human even if it doesn’t appear that way.