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Peterson: Shootings a setback for truth in mental illness

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It has been a week, and I still cannot comprehend the horror of last Friday’s shooting that left 20 6- and 7-year-olds dead, as well as eight other people, in Newtown, Conn.

My heart breaks for the children and their families. My heart breaks for the teachers and school staff who were murdered. My heart breaks for the mother who was murdered away from Sandy Hook Elementary School. My heart breaks for shooter Adam Lanza.

The question that most Americans likely have is, why?

What could have possessed this quiet 20-year-old to commit such a horrific act, a shooting unlike any other the United States has witnessed? More people might have been killed in other shootings, but none were so young, so innocent.

Almost immediately, Adam Lanza’s mental health was questioned, and reports have ranged from him being a person with developmental disabilities to having various mental illnesses to Asperger’s syndrome. But scarcely anything is known about the young man.

Whenever a tragedy like this occurs, two things are certain to come to the fore: firearms and mental illness. Both are pervasive in our society.

I will leave the argument about guns to someone else. I will concentrate on mental-health issues, which many people believe are the seed for such massacres.

If a crime is committed, it seems as if the mental health of the perpetrator is called into question, and all too often, it doesn’t matter. And it casts an unfair, stigmatizing shadow on everyone who has mental illnesses. And there are a lot of us, anywhere from 20 percent to 25 percent of Americans at any given time, or 63 million to 78 million people.

“People with mental illnesses are no more violent than people without mental illnesses,” according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. “Yet, these kind of tragic events unfairly and harmfully tar people with mental illnesses as inherently dangerous. In fact, these Americans not only share the nation’s horror at these events, but they also bear the additional weight of false stereotypes and discrimination needlessly reinforced by these perceptions.”

As a person with mental illnesses – bipolar disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety disorder – I fully understand the reach of the stigma and prejudice that comes with these diseases, no matter how far along you are in recovery.

I like to think of myself as a success story for someone with mental illnesses. I’d rather not have them, but then people would rather not have heart disease, strokes or diabetes. But the discrimination over mental illnesses crops up in the most unexpected places. That is the insidious nature of stigma. And it needs to be fought with facts.

The fact that I take medications to help control my mental illnesses should not be an issue. Yet people make it their business. What medications? How many pills? Yes, I have been asked those questions to determine my fitness by people who are not psychiatrists or psychologists. Would they ask the same of someone with diabetes, which can be life-threatening, too?

The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence, according to Mental Health Reporting of the University of Washington School of Social Work. And the link between the two is promoted by the entertainment industry and news media.

“Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness,” Richard A. Friedman, M.D., wrote in Monday’s New York Times. “Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself.”

People with mental illnesses are more likely to harm themselves or be harmed by others. For several years running, suicide has been the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. According to preliminary figures for 2011 from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Vital Statistics System, 38,285 people committed suicide, more than twice the number of homicides.

And the method of choice is firearms. According to the latest figures released a year ago by the National Vital Statistics Report, 18,735 people used firearms in 2009 to commit suicide, accounting for half of all suicides. Suffocation – hanging – accounted for 9,000 deaths.

“A great majority of people who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide,” the University of Washington points out. “Those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder. People who die by suicide are frequently experiencing undiagnosed, undertreated or untreated depression.”

The unfortunate fact today is there are fewer resources in McHenry County for people with mental illnesses because of state cuts or delays in funding. As witness to that is last summer’s shuttering of Family Service and Community Mental Health Center in McHenry.

People are falling through wider cracks, people who need help but can’t find it.

Identifying mental-health problems and treating them early remain our best hope.

If you feel you are going to harm someone else or yourself, please call the McHenry County Crisis Line at (800) 892-8900. It is staffed around the clock by caring professionals who can help you.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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