The American Psychiatric Association [APA] released a statement that condemned the senseless shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The APA statement included these words: “Mental health programs are severely underfunded in this country and access to needed care is challenging for individuals and families. It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent and far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of violence. Rhetoric that argues otherwise will further stigmatize and interfere with people accessing needed treatment.”
I strongly agree with the APA. My experience working with the mentally ill has shown that most mental health disorders are unlikely to result in aggressive behavior. In the 30-plus years I have worked in psychiatric hospitals and private practice, I was physically threatened only once and it involved an individual with paranoid schizophrenia who thought I was the devil.
Other than persons suffering from paranoia, I cannot think of many mental health disorders where the person feels a need to strike back or proactively protect themselves. We must be careful in our search for answers to these shootings. Statements like these — “It’s a mental health problem.” or “These shooters had mental health problems.” — should not be our summary statements.
There is enough stigma against the mentally ill already to add more misinformation or create a climate in which the mentally ill hide their illnesses or become too afraid to seek treatment.
I remember when I first went into private practice, my office was down the street from military recruiters. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were lined up on Magnolia Avenue in Corona and within walking distance of my office. Often these recruiters would come to my office, signed releases in hand, from adolescents I had treated years ago.
The military recruiters wanted to know whether this man or woman, who may have had a diagnosis of adjustment disorder or depression, would be unfit for military duty. The young man or woman may have been seen by me three, four or even five years previously. I cannot remember a single patient I considered unfit. Many, I do remember, ran away from abusive homes or alcoholic parents. The teenagers were identified by the parents as the “problem” and it was not until family therapy did the issues with their parents emerge. For some, leaving an abusive home was a sign of mental health, not mental illness.
This would have been 25 years ago and little has changed. I still educate parents about the stigma of mental health treatment following their sons or daughters years into their future. Recently, I had a professional from the State Department wanting information about a young woman I had seen 10 years ago.
Collectively, we must work together to educate the public and destigmatize mental health treatment. As my colleagues often remark, “It’s the people who don’t seek treatment I worry more about.”
Mitchell Rosen is a licensed therapist with practices in Corona and Temecula.
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