In the past few months, the nation has been shocked by a spate of senseless shootings that have taken the lives of nearly a dozen innocent people. On April 2, 2014, 34-year-old Army specialist Ivan Lopez killed three soldiers and wounded sixteen others at Fort Hood in Texas before taking his own life. On May 23, Eliot Roger, 22, went on a rampage in the idyllic college town of Isla Vista, killing six people before taking his own life. Two weeks later, Aaron Ybarra, 26, went on a shooting spree at Seattle Pacific College, killing a 19-year-old freshman.
All three shooters had different motives — Lopez was apparently upset that he was not granted leave for his mother’s funeral in Puerto Rico. Roger was angry at women for rejecting him, calling them “mean, cruel, and heartless creatures.”. Ybarra, who was not even a student at Seattle Pacific, was fascinated with school shootings, even going so far as to make a pilgrimage to Columbine, Colorado, site of the infamous 1999 massacre where 12 students and one teacher were killed.
The three killers did, however, have one thing in common — they all had psychiatric issues. Ivan Lopez was being treated for depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Eliot Roger, who had seen a variety of therapists and counselors since the age of eight, reported hearing voices. He was prescribed the antipsychotic medication Risperdone, but refused to take it. Aaron Ybarra had a long history of mental illness, and had even been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility.
In the wake of these shootings, dozens of articles have been written discussing the treatment of the mentally ill, the assumption being that most are potentially dangerous. As someone who has been living with bipolar disorder for decades (I am not “suffering from bipolar disorder” — I am doing quite fine, thank you), the widespread conception that persons with mental illnesses are violent is not only upsetting, but incorrect. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “the absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is still very small and . . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill.” A recent study found that most violence committed by mentally ill persons takes place in institutions. In fact, people with serious mental disorders are twice as likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. However, when mental illness is mentioned in the news or is part of a storyline in a movie or television program, it is usually within the context of violence, adding to the stigma that those of us with mental illness must face every day.
Other common misconceptions about mental illness include the following:
People with schizophrenia have a “split personality”:- Of all the major psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia is perhaps the most stigmatized. The very word conjures up images of an unkempt, wild-eyed “lunatic,” screaming out obscenities at passersby. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder and has nothing to do with a “split personality.” Individuals with schizophrenia sometimes think that others are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to kill them. Some people with schizophrenia exhibit bizarre behavior, saying strange things and seeing and hearing things that are not there.
I work part-time at an SIL (Supported Independent Living) facility with adults who have been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. When I tell people this, they look at me like I said “I work with serial killers.” I am often asked what its like working with “them.” I reply that “they” are people who are dealing with a serious illness, and that the majority of them have been stabilized on medication. Some of them work, a few even have children. I also say that most of them are nice people, and that there is nothing to fear from them or the majority of people with mental illnesses.
Mental illnesses are not real diseases – This is one of the most frustrating misconceptions to deal with — that those of us with psychiatric disorders are somehow “faking it ” to get attention, or because of some other ulterior motive. Persons with mental illness are also sometimes thought of as being weak or lacking in willpower. I have been told to “get myself together,” and “snap out of it.” A friend even told me to “throw that junk away” (referring to my medicine) and she would help me pray the bipolar away.
There are numerous factors that contribute to mental illness, including environment and brain chemistry. Mental health researchers have also found a strong genetic component to many mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia. This disease is found in only one percent of the population, but among ten percent of people who have first degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters) with it. An identical twin of a person with schizophrenia has a 40 to 65 percent of having the disorder, which, like bipolar disorder, is usually diagnosed in late adolescence or early adulthood. Bipolar disorder also has a strong genetic component. My mother has the disease, as did my grandmother.. It has caused all three of us and our loved ones a great deal of pain. If it were possible to just wish it away, I certainly would.
People with bipolar disorder are creative – Bipolar disorder has something of a cachet to it — unlike scary schizophrenia, it is thought by some to be cool, hip and edgy, mainly because of the significant number of creative types who have been diagnosed with it, including actors Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Zeta-Jones, Patty Duke, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Van Gogh are also thought to have had it as well. Media depictions of bipolar disorder almost always focus on the manic phase, the deep, soul-crushing depression that often follows these highs isn’t as sexy.
In the ABC series “Black Box,” for example, Kelly Reilly plays Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant bipolar neurologist who manages to hide her disease from all but a few people. In one episode, she gets tired of taking her medications, throws them down the toilet, and almost immediately goes into a manic stage (any clinician will tell you that it takes several days, at least, for medications to be flushed completely out of the bloodstream, but hey, it’s television). In her manic periods, Dr. Black becomes super-creative, has colorful hallucinations, and dances to jazz solos only she can hear. She tells her psychiatrist that the time off her meds was “a freaking rocket ride — I’ve never had a better time in my life.” In other words, being bipolar is actually kind of fun!
What’s wrong with this picture? Being bipolar doesn’t make one creative and being creative doesn’t make one bipolar. While there are varying degrees of severity along the bipolar spectrum — some people are barely impacted by it, while others are so incapacitated that they spend months, sometimes years, in hospitals — the idea that the manic stage of the illness is desirable paints an unrealistic picture of just how devastating this disease can be. While in a manic stage, I have lost jobs and even landed in jail for contempt of court when I argued with a judge — being stuck in a tiny, dirty cell is most definitely not a “freaking rocket ride.”. Having bipolar disorder also strained my marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.
In my late thirties i had a major breakdown, which caused me to be in and out of institutions for two years. There’s nothing cool, hip, or edgy about being in a psychiatric hospital, hearing voices, and praying to get cancer so I wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of killing myself., There was nothing fun at all about shock treatment or being away from my family for weeks.. My children were young then, and didn’t quite understand what was going on. My daughter referred to the disease as “mommy’s polar bear” and asked me if I “could just send it away” so I could come back home. Her question broke my heart. I told her that it would always be with me in some form or another, but I would try to control it so I could come home to my beloved family — which I eventually did.
Women in the manic phase of bipolar disorder are hypersexual: In “Black Box,” when Dr. Black comes off her medication, she has unprotected sex with a stranger. These seems to be a common theme in shows about bipolar disorder, Some women, and men may become hypersexual during the manic stage but, others do not. I haven’t had a full blown manic episode in years, but when I do, I become irritable, impulsively buy things I don’t need and can’t afford, stay up all night, and talk incessantly. Sex is the last thing on my mind. My mother would become moody and volatile during her manic episodes and was often physically abusive to me and my siblings.
This stereotype is not only inaccurate, but harmful, as it does little to advance understanding of this complex disease. It’s also somewhat sexist — men are almost never portrayed as being hypersexual during manic phases, while “Black Box” seems to delight in the numerous ways the manicky Dr. Black engages in inappropriate and risky sexual liaisons. And on a personal level, its difficult enough to tell a new friend oor potential romantic partner about my bipolar disorder without him or her thinking that I am some kind of sex machine.
I am not trying to deny that there are individuals with mental illnesses who are a threat to society, but they are in the minority. I have been stabilized on medication for more than a decade and am fortunate to have a wonderful therapist and a caring psychiatrist. I graduated college, live on my own, have friends, and have held the same job for a decade. It’s disappointing that the media never shows people like myself, who are living with and managing their mental illnesses and do not fit the stereotypical image of a “crazy” person.
Those of us with psychiatric illnesses are not “maniacs,” “crazies” “loonies,” or “nuts,” We are human beings coping with difficult diseases who need compassion, support, and most of all, understanding.