A mental illness, (mental disorder, psychological disorder or psychiatric disorder), is defined as a mental or behavioral pattern that causes either suffering or a poor ability to function in ordinary life, as well as disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Mental illness examples include depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviors. According to DSM-IV, a mental disorder is defined as a psychological syndrome or pattern, which occurs in an individual, and causes distress via a painful symptom or disability, or increases the risk of death, pain, or disability.
"People who experience psychiatric disabilities are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes."
Whenever a news agency or other media source mentions, 'people with mental illness and violence,' I am reminded of my own personal experiences with the subject. My mother was affected by a form of mental illness - the fact that she was a nurse made no difference where the illness was concerned. What does matter is the reaction my brother and I had to her mental illness, we were clearly traumatized by it.
What happened? Well...my mother was affected by a mental health disorder that doctors of the time were unable to define. She received prescription medication, yet she also became an alcoholic because the medications were most likely for another form of mental illness, or she was unable to tolerate the medication. Finding no relief in traditional medicine, my mother reached for cheap, fortified wine and bottom-shelf vodka, often times consumed from a cartoon glass. Society has not changed much in its approach to treatment of forms of mental illnesses in some ways.
What Once Existed
The mother I knew was a woman who took care of her children and others. She made cakes for birthdays and loved my brother and I unconditionally. My mother once had a good level of mental health, but things certainly changed. My father, knowing there were more jobs for nurses in Washington State in the city of Seattle, moved us there and the issues began.
Mom attempted to pursue her nursing career, but mental illness interfered. She became depressed, perhaps to the point of experiencing psychosis. My father, whom I have absolutely nothing but compassion for at this point in life, definitely tried to help. The problem seems to be that she did not receive medication appropriate to treat the illness she experienced.
A divorce followed and my brother and I were at our mother's apartment one day. She started drinking early in the day, consuming cheap wine and vodka. My mother, it is important to note, was the kind of woman who always did her best to put on makeup and style her hair. My brother and I were out front of the apartment playing when we heard a loud, terrible scream.
I went into the apartment after telling my younger brother to remain outside. I went into the apartment to find my drunken mother with her makeup smeared all over her face, holding a cartoon character glass full of vodka. It was too much for my young mind to take - I kind of, 'blanked,' and lost several years worth of memory. Could my mother's actions be considered, 'violent?'
Changes in Mental Health
Studies have presented a more complex image concerning mental illness and violence. The studies suggest that violence on the parts of people with forms of mental illnesses, such as aggression in the general population, stems from multiple overlapping factors interacting in ways that are complex. These include:
Substance abuse is often times tightly woven into this fabric of factors, making it difficult to differentiate the influence of factors which are not as obvious. My mother experienced at least two of these three factors. She had been through a divorce and she lived on welfare until taking her own life. Her children had been taken away from her and she simply couldn't bear it.
Where physical violence and mental health are concerned, studies have found a decline in the numbers of people with forms of mental health disorders engaging in violence over time. Substantive hypotheses to account for the decline are many indeed. People might become more engaged in treatment over time, or support from family members or friends may increase. Rates of violence might peak at the time the person is admitted to a hospital when they are in acute crisis and remain high for a period of time following discharge because many people still have active mental disorders after leaving the hospital. For my mother, treatment was clearly not adequate.
A More Current Level of Understanding
Researchers have something to say about the link between mental illness and violence. For example; the Institute of Medicine stated in 2006, "Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population." The American Psychiatric Association stated, "...the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses." The statement by the American Psychiatric Association actually makes me think of politicians and other leaders who pursue violence on scales that can only be described as being truly violent.
People who experience psychiatric disabilities are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes. People with severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or psychosis are 2.5 times more likely to be raped, attacked, or mugged than people in the general population. The public is plainly misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.
A longitudinal study of the attitudes of Americans on mental health between the years of 1950-1996 found the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behaviors nearly doubled. The vast majority of Americans also believe that people with mental illnesses present a threat of violence towards other people and themselves. Inaccurate beliefs about mental health and violence has lead to widespread stigma and discrimination.
Discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness stems; in part, form the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of people in the general public. The effects of discrimination and stigma are truly profound. Stigma leads others to avoid socializing with, living with, working with, renting to, or employing people with mental health disorders - particularly severe disorders such as schizophrenia. It leads to isolation, low self-esteem and hopelessness. Stigma and discrimination deters the public from desiring to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health disabilities internalize public attitudes and become ashamed or embarrassed. They often conceal symptoms and do not pursue treatment.
The link between mental illnesses and violence is actually promoted by the news media and entertainment. Characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups, 60% were shown to be involved in crime or violence, according to Mental Health America. The vast majority of news stories on mental illness either focus on other negative characteristics related to people with the disorder such as unsociability or unpredictability, or on medical treatments. What is absent? Positive stories highlighting the recovery of many people with even the most serious forms of mental illnesses.
It Piles Up, and Few Care
While I do not blame my mother for seriously scaring the wits out of my brother and I, it was important to pursue the resulting trauma. I do not consider my mother to have been physically violent, merely overwhelmed by too many factors in her life. When traditional medication and treatment failed, she self-medicated with the cheapest alternative she could find at the time - alcoholic beverages.
When I think of people who live with severe forms of mental illnesses every single day, I think of people who have been failed by society and the medical community. The medical community has done what it could, why should I blame them? I do not blame the medical community, it is filled with people who are trying their best. Yet so many people in America alone have negative statements concerning people with mental illnesses that I find myself questioning the ethics and morality of this nation.
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