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Mental Illness Stigma Grows in Wake of Conn. Shootings

7:22 AM, Mar 18, 2013   |    comments
Joann Strunk is reflective as she looks through a binder of documents that chronicle her daughter's medical condition as she sits in her Lexington, Ky., home on Jan. 29, 2013. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr., The Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal)
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Laura Ungar,The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

People usually don't have much of a problem telling others they have diabetes or heart disease. Butadmitting they have mental illness is a different story.

A stigma continues to surround mental illness, and some advocates say it's been strengthened in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, which caused many to connect mental illness to violence.

"People assume all violent acts are perpetrated by people with mental illness," said George Hersch, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Louisville chapter.

A recent national survey published in January in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 46 percent agreed that "people with serious mental illness are, by far, more dangerous than the general population." Only a third of respondents said they would be willing to have a person with a serious mental illness as a neighbor.

In reality, studies show that the mentally ill commit only a small portion of violent acts. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, for example, concluded that patients with severe mental illness, as identified by hospital admissions, committed about 5 percent of all violent crimes.

"About one-quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and only a very small percentage of them will ever commit violent crimes," the American Psychiatric Association's president, Dr. Dilip Jeste, said in a statement in December.

A 2003 article in the journal World Psychiatry echoed those sentiments, pointing out that the major factors leading to violence include youth, being male and lower socioeconomic status.

"Members of the public exaggerate both the strength of the association between mental illness and violence and their own personal risk," concluded Canadian author Heather Stuart. "...Research supports the view the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence."

Several families initially agreed to speak with The Courier-Journal about their struggles with mental health care for violent family members, but then backed out, partly because of patients' fears about being identified as mentally ill.

Mental health advocates say they've tried to reduce the stigma around mental illness by reminding people that it is a common, treatable medical problem.

"Mental illness is not a personality defect, and it's not caused by poor parenting," said Ramona Johnson, chief executive officer of Bridgehaven Mental Health Services in Louisville.

According to federal health officials and NAMI, 57.7 million Americans will experience a mental health disorder in a given year, and one in 17 American adults lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

The federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that from 2009 through 2011, about 20 percent of Americans had a mental illness.

Overall, experts said, most people with mental illness can recover if they get the right help. "With treatment," Johnson said, "there's an 80-85 percent recovery rate."

But some sufferers forgo treatment because of the stigma.

NAMI says fewer than a third of adults and half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year. Some people with mental illnesses instead isolate themselves or find that others abandon them, experts said.

Johnson said she hopes for a day when society views mental illness as the medical condition it is - a condition as real and heartbreaking as Parkinson's disease or cancer.

"With mental illness, it's not just a body system that's affected. It's their sense of who they are," she said. "It's the whole person that's affected."


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