The following is the entire text of a letter I recently send to the editor of The Evening Sun, my local newspaper. (It wasn’t my first letter. Here’s a previous one I sent in a while ago.) It was my response to a series of comments from the readership that people who commit crimes like the mass murder in Newton, CT, must be mentally ill. Other comments asserted that autism is a mental illness when, in fact, it is a developmental delay. If it gets published, I will update it with a link.
Whether we like it or not, one out of every twenty people in the United States has or has had a serious mental health illness. This is according to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). Based on their statistics, most of the people exhibiting these illnesses are between the ages of 18 and 49, the most productive years of a person’s life. Unlike the flu or a broken bone, a mental health illness is not diagnosable via a lab test or an x-ray. Diagnosis requires expert analysis of the person’s personality and behavior. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these experts around to diagnose and treat one out of every twenty people.
People with mental health issues face stigma regarding their disease. Rarely does someone with Lupus get taunted by their family or peers, or barred from being employed. Rarely do we say that someone whose illness flares up and affects others is worthy of being placed on a national database, put in prison, or be otherwise “marked”.
There is also confusion on what is a mental health illness. For example, autism is a delay in brain development, not a mental health illness. People with mental health illness are more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are neither insane nor monsters. Those are labels that societies apply to criminals in an effort to explain abhorrent behavior. Further, most of the people with antisocial personality disorders have those disorders as a result of an antagonistic environment, growing up without authority and marginalized from society because of their social status.
I would like to invite your readers to familiarize themselves with national organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org or 800-223-0500), and with local organizations like the Adams-Hanover Counseling Services (ahcsinc.com or (717)632-4900). The work that these and many other mental health organizations do is important if we are to understand and de-stigmatize mental health illness. Mental health illness is much more common than we want to believe, and people who suffer from those conditions are much more human than how they are treated.
Finally, if anyone reading this is contemplating suicide, please call the national suicide hotline (800-273-TALK/8255). Life gets better, and you are not alone.
Thank you for your time.