Identifying mental illness key to preventing tragedy

Mental illness is often discussed as a factor that plays a role in violent acts such as the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, although mental health is often less significant in violent acts than we may believe.

John Masterson, CEO of Behavioral Health Resources, said mental illness is connected to only a portion of violent incidents, a mere four percent in the U.S. However, according to South Puget Sound Community College Professor Kathryn Clancy, it should be taken into consideration that many people with mental illnesses often go undiagnosed due to the subtleties of their symptoms.

According to South Puget Sound Community College Psychology Professor Bart Abplanalp, those who suffer from serious mental illness are more prone to being victims of crime, rather than committing them. In general, violent acts are derived from desperation. The main sources of this sort of desperation are conditions like depression and schizophrenia, Abplanalp said.

The mentally ill are frequently victimized, Abplanalp said. Schizophrenics, as an element of their condition, can be viewed as easier targets because of their disorganized tendencies, he said. Similarly, people who suffer from depression are more likely to self harm because of a lack of motivation, Abplanalp said.

In addition to being only one component of violence, mental illness is also a broad issue that is often incorrectly combined into one category.

“Mental illness is merely one factor and it depends entirely on what the mental illness is,” said Abplanalp. Most people do not understand the differences between various mental illnesses, he said. Because of this problem, people assume all mental illnesses can cause destructive behaviors, but many have no real connection with violence, Abplanalp said.

For example, the word psychotic has a negative connotation implying “maniac or crazy person,” he said. However, psychosis is “a detachment from reality; it has nothing whatsoever to do with violence,” he said.

Masterson said mental health is severely underfunded. According to Masterson, if someone with a serious mental illness has access to Medicaid, they can get the assistance they need. Masterson said those that aren’t eligible for Medicaid have very limited access.

According to Abplanalp, the majority of people with serious mental illnesses are “being treated” in prison, after they have committed a crime. Often times, their mental illness is not a factor in the crime, he said.

The stigmatization of the mentally ill forces those who suffer from these conditions to believe that there is something wrong with them, Abplanalp said. Additionally, the parents of children who are mentally ill assume they have failed, because of this stigma, he said. Those who do not understand mental illness become afraid, and they are therefore unlikely to engage in the necessary treatment, he said.

On the other hand, Masterson said he believes the majority of people will not assume that those who are mentally ill have violent tendencies. According to Masterson, one in five people suffer from mental illness, so most people know someone who is diagnosed with one illness, causing fewer assumptions about violent tendencies. Masterson believes since most people have experience with those who have mental illness, such as depression or anxiety disorders, they will understand that only a small portion of mentally ill people are violent.