“There is mental illness. And there is murder. The two shouldn’t be confused with each other,” writes mental health advocate Therese Borchard. (Photo: Alberto Ruggieri/Getty Images)
Every time there is a tragedy like the Germanwings plane crash in which the alleged murderer is suspected of (or is documented with) mental problems, my job as a health advocate who tries to educate the public about the complexity of mood disorders gets much, much harder.
Why? Because depression and/or suicidal thoughts are once again perceived as linked with violence. So all the progress that we, as a society, have made in trying to understand an invisible illness is lost. Once again, the 10 percent of Americans who take antidepressants become dangerous in the public mind.
The wall gets higher.
Between those who can handle their emotions.
And the “cray-crays” who may go postal at any moment.
Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot thought to be responsible for the Germanwings plane crash, who had received treatment for suicidal tendencies before getting his pilot’s license, is merely the most recent poster boy for depression and all disorders that fall under the umbrella of “mental illness.” Two years ago, 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before turning the gun on himself. Media reports linked the massacre to his autism. Remember the blog I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother by Liza Long, the mother of an autistic child, trying to clarify what autism isn’t?
And then there was 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, and then killed himself. The records showed only two telephone conversations and one in-person visit between Cho and mental health professionals at the Cook Counseling Center, the university’s student mental health services provider. But Cho had been admitted overnight to the hospital after his roommate became concerned when Cho threatened to take his own life.
I remember that one so well because I had just been hospitalized myself for severe, suicidal depression.
It seemed like when I needed support the most, people were scared to get near me, let alone help me get better.
Did they think I was like Cho?
The news headlines show only one kind of depressive … the dangerous lunatic.
Even if Cho had sought help, it’s important to distinguish between the criminal, malevolent plans that were developing in the gray matter of his brain and the entirely different kinds of ruminations that are typical of depression. One involves shooting innocent people. The other obsesses about work performance and approval from peers. News headlines don’t like to clarify this critical point, but for the sake of everyone I know who struggles with depression (thousands of people), I will.
There is mental illness.
And there is murder.
The two shouldn’t be confused with each other.
Maybe I should say it this way: I have spent years of my life fighting suicidal thoughts. Would I ever dream of hurting someone else in wanting to eliminate myself? Of course not. Nor would anyone I have ever talked to who has been suicidal, or anyone who has participated in one of my depression communities (over 6,000 people).
In an interview with me, psychologist and bestselling author of the book Riding the Dragon, Robert J. Wicks, PsyD, responded on the tragedy by cautioning, “Cloaking suicidal actions that kill other people as mental illness or depression is very misleading.” Dr. Wicks then went on to pose a question and make a telling point: “After all, how many people do you know who are having psychological difficulties or are depressed would ever do something that involves indiscriminately killing others? To the contrary, experiencing depression and most forms of psychological difficulties often results in enhancing their sense of compassion toward others in ways people who have never experienced serious distress themselves can.”
To his last point, I also find that people who struggle with depression typically are more compassionate, sensitive, and loving than persons who don’t. It is precisely because they have known so much pain that they are the first to want to relieve it in another person.
But the media likes to make that jump from possible mood disorder to mass murder. It’s quicker, easier, and less painful than to delve into the complexities of the human psyche and discover the places where darkness and bitterness can overshadow logic, compassion, and goodness in a person’s brain — the fragile and scary intersection between evil and illness, and the corners of our mind we never want to visit between distorted thoughts and malicious actions.
John Grohol, PsyD, CEO and founder of PsychCentral.com, writes a comprehensive piece, Dispelling the Myths of Violence and Mental Illness, in which he names a few studies that should be enough data to convince others that persons who suffer from depression or another mood disorder are not more dangerous than persons who have never swallowed Prozac, and definitely safer than folks who are depressed but pretend not to be and lie about it on medical forms.
He first names a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry that found that “[…] patients discharged from psychiatric facilities who did not abuse alcohol and illegal drugs had a rate of violence no different than that of their neighbors in the community.” In the commentary accompanying the study, Bruce Link, PhD, and Ann Stueve, PhD, write:
“[…] Steadman et al asked about the targets of violence and found that the vast majority (86%) of violent acts committed by former patients occurred within the context of family and friendship networks. Indeed, members of the Pittsburgh public who were violent were slightly (but not significantly) more likely to target strangers (22%) than were Pittsburgh patients (11%)! Public fears that patients with mental illness will attack them are sharply contradicted by such findings.”
Dr. Grohol concludes his article by saying, “Violence is most often a criminal activity which has little correlation with a person’s mental health. Most people who suffer from a mental disorder are not violent — there is no need to fear them. Embrace them for who they are — normal human beings experiencing a difficult time, who need your open mind, caring attitude, and helpful support.”
By Therese Borchard, Everyday Health columnist
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This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: I’m Depressed, Not Dangerous