mental illness and stigmaPaul Heroux recently penned an op-ed piece entitled “Can we help them before they hurt us.” To be fair, Heroux admits the poor choice of words in the title in his response to a reader’s comment:

“I write op-eds all the time. I don’t choose the titles of my op-eds, the editors do. That said, I don’t think the editor meant anything malicious by it but you do raise a good point.”

Unfortunately, malice is rarely the motive that drives stigma. Ignorance and insensitivity are the primary culprits. Also, I don’t believe Heroux’s admission gets him completely off the hook. Although he attempts to write a balanced piece, his approach tends to lean toward fueling fear and reinforcing an us-vs-them mentality.

I encourage you to read Heroux’s op-ed in its entirety before reading my comments on it, so you can see the quotes I reference in their context. It’s only fair.

While I understand that writers need to be a little dramatic or controversial to hook readers, I think the hook in this article goes a little too far in inciting fear:

“How often do we hear that a violent criminal was ‘mentally unstable’? Too often is the appropriate answer.”

And what’s his support for this? Four shootings or attempted shootings in which the perpetrators exhibited signs of mental illness that date from relatively recently to as far back to 1981 (Hinkley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan) and 1966 (Charles Whitman, the University of Texas Sniper).

Granted, even one instance is too often, but reaching back to 1966 for examples to support how frequently such violent acts occur doesn’t quite work. Even so, Heroux concludes most dramatically, “It seems such attacks can happen anywhere.”

Another line that I found particularly bothersome is this:

“But while most individuals with mental illness are not violent, a subset of them is.”

True, but a subset of any population is violent. Instead of focusing on the subset of violent people in our society, those who’ve been diagnosed as having a mental illness are singled out. I think that’s stigmatizing.

Here’s one final example:

“In other words, we can’t ignore mental illness or take a single approach to it. It requires a sustained, comprehensive approach. But if there isn’t significant, sustained public will to help those afflicted by mental illness, we won’t do what’s necessary to prevent some of them from becoming violent.”

There we go again, “some of them,” that subset of those people, could become violent, if we happen to let down our guard.

The subtext here is that we need to be afraid of people with mental illness, the “we” being those who haven’t been diagnosed as having a mental illness.

In addition, the entire piece conveys a tone of us vs. them, which undermines attempts to establish the fact that the majority of people who’ve been diagnosed as having a mental illness are productive, peaceful individuals.

Photo by Skin-ubx, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.