Community Papers

MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS: Misunderstanding mental illness — again

It has been about a month since the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shootings.

With the activities last week of Mental Illness Awareness Week and, ironically, Thanksgiving, the Washington tragedy raises more questions than answers for mental health practitioners.

When we have been so successful as a culture and society in reducing the stigma of HIV/AIDS, why is the prejudice against mental illness increasing?

It was this prejudice that led Washington shooter Aaron Alexis to believe he could not or should not tell anyone about his symptoms for fear of losing his job.

In most work environments — and certainly in the case of Alexis — it remains an occupational and social detriment to admit a mental illness.

Is there nothing we can do to balance a reasoned approach to disclosing mental illness and preserving privacy at the workplace?

Given these events appear to be so common in the news, how do mental-health practitioners go about the nearly impossible task of reassuring people in the community that mentally ill people pose very little risk of violence, and that only a very small amount of untreated mentally ill become violent, and that mentally ill people are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it?

In Canada, American news has in many ways been taken as “our news,” so how do practitioners explain to the public it is the absolutely insane gun laws and extreme gun ownership in the United States — not mentally ill people —  that causes these mass shootings?

Australia, Great Britain and Japan banned personal ownership of many types of weapons in the 1970s and 1980s after mass shootings occurred in their countries.

They have not had a single mass shooting since that time, although it would be ludicrous to say there is no more mental illness in those places.

In the United States, more people are killed by guns than by car accidents — and 100,000 additional people are wounded by firearms every year.

But, after every mass shooting, the discussion is about mental illness and the link between violence and mental illness is once more embedded into the public consciousness.

The more practitioners try to convince the public that people with mental illness deserve compassion, understanding and support, the more a news report emphasizing mental illness in a violent death undermines the effort.

Yet another question arises: If Alexis had the proper support for his delusional symptoms, would he have picked up a firearm in the first place?

When you combine all of this with the new federal government legislation that effectively creates a “treatment sentence” for some people found not criminally responsible for a crime, mental-health practitioners can feel somewhat overwhelmed with the obstacles to an enlightened public.

If our legislators are that ignorant of mental illness and effective management of it, what opportunities do we have to bring understanding and compassion to the public?

We cannot change the world’s, or even Canada’s, understanding of mental illness, but we certainly hope we can influence our little corner here in Kamloops and the Thompson-Nicola region.

We urge people to see beyond the headlines, the hype, the gun lobby and their own fears and reflect on what a lonely place it can be for people with mental illness at times like these.


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