September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center the last children’s state psychiatric hospital on Long Island is pending closure in July 2014. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults will suffer from a mental disorder in a given year. Scientific American states that only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by severely mentally ill people. Yet, we still commonly refer to violent criminals as “crazy” or “psychotic.” Placing such a stigma on mentally ill people is seriously harmful to their well being and prospects for treatment.
Yes, it is difficult to fathom what drives someone to commit a heinous crime, but attributing crimes to mental illness is counterproductive. Such attributions lessen the perpetrator’s accountability and contribute to the idea that all mentally ill people are violent, which may prevent those who need help from seeking help.
Politicians perpetuate stigma by ignoring the necessity of inpatient treatment. John Javis, director of special projects for the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, said that community-based treatment would be preferable to “locking people away for the rest of their lives.” Unrealistic representations of psychiatric hospitals in the media are, presumably, what informed Javis’ comment. Most children stay in treatment between three and four months. Contrary to being “locked up,” children, once stabilized, are offered day or weekend passes.
The Save Sagamore campaign has been underway to stop the closure of the last children’s hospital on Long Island. One of the most important arguments for keeping it open is the importance of familial support in resiliency. Parents would be faced with the decision to send their child 90 miles away or more for inpatient treatment or to settle for vague and less intensive “community-based” treatment. With an influx of patients, this presents the likelihood of inadequate treatment and thus a serious risk for repeated hospitalizations.
What if physical illnesses were treated like mental illnesses? We would explain to someone with diabetes that “this too shall pass” and they should “just snap out of it” or “get a job like the rest of us.” Maybe we would avoid eye contact in fear that the person with a broken leg might start acting out; we would whisper in hushed tones about “how those people get.” If someone started complaining about chest pains and heart palpitations, we might ignore them since they’re “probably looking for attention.”
These comments are absurd when paired with physical illnesses, yet they are all too familiar to those who suffer from mental illness.
National Suicide Prevention Month enables an honest discussion about stigma. Mental illnesses are just as valid as physical illnesses; they result from heredity, chemical imbalances in the brain, negative or traumatic life experiences or a combination. Mental illness can often be treated with a combination of talk therapy and/or medication; some patients are able to reach remission with short-term treatment, but for other disorders, treatment can be long-term or lifelong.
Ultimately, cutting mental health services when this would likely never be considered for a hospital treating physical health is a worrying result of the widespread stigma surrounding mental illness. Even when we accuse mentally ill people of seeking attention, we are actively silencing them. Because mental illness is an invisible illness, it is easy to make assumptions about why someone “looks fine” despite being out of work or school. Given the complex and personal nature of any illness, we should not make assumptions based solely on appearances.