Mental Health Challenges Do Not Equal Violent Behavior

The following opinion piece by Mary Seymour, Director of GROW at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, appeared in the January 6, 2013, edition of the Greensboro News & Record.

Mary Seymour
Mary Seymour

I have been in the headlines more times than I can count in the past few weeks. I should be happy for all this coverage of me, but, frankly, I’m not. It’s not the way I want to be characterized.

You see, I’m one of “the mentally ill”—that big, scary-sounding, undifferentiated group that currently seems to be synonymous with inexplicable violent behavior and unfathomable acts of destruction. We’re a large cohort—one in five American adults, per the government’s latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health—and we encompass a huge range of symptoms and diagnoses. We are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it, according to a recent meta-analysis at John Moores University in England.

Can people with mental health challenges be violent? Absolutely. Was Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, mentally ill? I would guess so. I suspect his past will reveal that neither nature nor nurture was on his side. But Lanza’s story, in all its awful mystery, is uniquely his own. He is not a stand-in for me or any of the estimated 20.9 million adults dealing with mental health issues in this country.

I have never felt the urge to push a person in front of a subway, set fires, or shoot people. I don’t talk loudly to myself or gesticulate wildly or dress bizarrely. People don’t know I have a mental health diagnosis because I don’t fit their stereotype. When I choose to reveal that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, people often say, “I never would have known. You seem so normal!”

No matter how many times I hear it, I’m still speechless.

My story is one I’ve told in Newsweek and recounted to many community groups in an attempt to destigmatize mental illness and teach that recovery is possible. Yes, I’ve known insanity. I’ve had voices talk to me and seen eternity in the periphery of the sun. I’ve been locked in a psychiatric ward and shuffled dim hallways in a sedated haze.  I’ve lived in depression so deep and vast that I longed to die. 

And I’ve also triumphed.  I’ve worked for 30 years as a writer and editor, raised a son, trained a rescue horse, taught art and creative writing, and earned a master’s degree in counseling from UNCG. In June I started working as a program director at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, where I use my experience to help others in recovery. I can’t imagine better, more fulfilling work.

Now the unaccountable actions of Adam Lanza, William Spengler, and other violent-minded citizens have brought a firestorm of media attention our way. Most of the publicity has shined a much-needed spotlight on the nation’s inadequate mental health care system. Hopefully this will lead to early intervention, wraparound services, and more compassionate care for people with severe, persistent mental illness.

And yet I wonder what impressions will linger in the weeks and months after the spotlight fades. Will violence and mental illness continued to be linked in the public mind? Will the same stereotypes about “crazy” people remain?

My hunch is we won’t be eradicating stigma around mental illness anytime soon. But, as anyone working a 12-step program will tell you, recovery is about replacing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness with positive action. As the late pop artist Andy Warhol wrote, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

In that spirit, I have three simple requests for change:

1)   Be sensitive with your language around mental illness. Avoid using pejorative labels like drama queen, crazy, borderline, and addict. Don’t call us “the mentally ill.” Instead, use person-first language such as “people with mental health challenges” or “individuals with mental health diagnoses.” Better yet, don’t label us at all.

2)   Be compassionate and kind toward us, not scared of us. Understand that mental disorders are often adaptive responses formed in childhood in order to survive a difficult environment. Remember that we are more likely to be victims of a crime than to perpetrate one.

3)   Recognize our strength. Surviving the double whammy of mental health challenges and social stigma takes a strong constitution. Praise us for what we’ve withstood and acknowledge that we carry that strength forward into our potential.

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