Why They Fear Us

In the “E.R” season finale, popular characters Carter and Lucy are brutally stabbed by a man they’ve been treating for schizophrenia. Lucy dies and Carter is physically and emotionally scarred.

On ABC’s short-lived series, “Wonderland,” set in a fictional hospital’s psychiatric and emergency services, within the first ten minutes we witness medical staff discussing a patient who has just bitten off and eaten his mother’s finger, patients in a group therapy session arguing and talking about doing violence, and a schizophrenic man walking into the middle of Times Square, pulling out a handgun and shooting a police officer in the head before he turns the gun on the crowd.

“NYPD Blue” shows a “psycho” with an unknown mental illness, serial raping and murdering young girls. In the Oscar-winning movie “Silence of the Lambs” we are given not one, but two mentally ill serial killers, ‘Hannibal “The Cannibal”Lector,’ and ‘”Buffalo Bill”‘, nicknamed because “…He skins his humps.”  I could go on and on…

The University of Pittsburgh recently released their findings of a 24 year study of how people with mental illness/brain disorders are portrayed in the movies, on TV shows and in fiction. They discovered that 78 percent of the time we are shown as violent psychopaths.

We also see in our newspapers and on TV, daily stories about brutal crimes with a mental health connection: a man in with a history of depression, murdering seven people in his work place because his wages were about to be garnished by the IRS. A woman who was once treated for depression kills her sister in a domestic dispute. Two high school kids in Colorado on anti-depressants bring weapons into their school and kill over a dozen classmates and teachers.

As we move this month into the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to look back over the pop culture villains of the last century. These icons represent our country’s nemesis, our fears and insecurities incarnate, our “boogy men.” These Movie/Novel/TV “villains” from 1901 till 2000 have included through the decades: Native Americans, mobsters, outlaws and gunfighters, Nazis and Japanese, Red Communists (Chinese/Russian/North Korean/Vietnamese/Internal), huge radioactive animals and insects, corrupt police and other members of the “establishment,” Black/Latin alley slayers/muggers/”gang bangers,”our own technology run amok, drug lords, Arab terrorists, right-wing vigilante groups, and people with mental illness, either as maniacal, unstoppable serial killers, or as cool, insane geniuses.

In the mid ’50’s, filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock helped us focus on this last category in his effective and frightening masterpiece, “Psycho” giving the public a catchy label, and us an unfortunate stereotype.

In the tenth century, the unknown terror in the dark was represented by “Grendel,” the murdering monster of the epic poem”Beowulf.” Our own culture reacts in similar ways. What we don’t understand, we fear. And what we fear, we hate. It’s hard to find reason or purpose to the killings at Columbine High School, or how three strangers could shoot a kid off his bicycle, here in the Twin Cities, simply for the experience. It’s hard to find the “whys” for so much of the terrible things that happen in the world. And right now, mental illness is a “sexy,” interesting, exciting place for the media and show business to put a lot of the “whys.” It’s easy and convenient to explain some unexplainable action, with “He’s crazy.” It’s also lazy and often wrong.

Statistics show that among people with treated mental illness, there is no more chance of one of them doing a violent act than anyone from the general population, in fact there is a 1% less chance. However they are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. In untreated there is a greater chance of violence both to others, and especially to themselves. But the statistics are still minor compared to other causes of violence, like alcohol, which is a contributing factor to almost 90 percent of violent crime in America, but which is never focused on because of drinking’s acceptability in our culture, and because it is old hat, not “sexy” enough, not sensational enough for the media.

Whenever the TV reports, “The alleged killer had a history of mental illness” whether it was two weeks or 30 years before, it is one more “electric shock”, one more conditioning factor, like the decades of “Norman Bates” and “Hannibal Lectors.” It hurts us and our families. And even though many terrible and sad situations and emotions can come as a result of mental illness and it’s stigma, let’s be clear about basic human behavior: Alcoholism is not mental illness. Drug addiction is not mental illness. Loneliness is not mental illness. Isolation is not mental illness. Greed is not mental illness. Sadness is not mental illness. Misogyny is not mental illness.  Callousness is not mental illness. Selfishness is not mental illness. Rage is not mental illness. Violence is not mental illness.

The main factor of why this illness is so terrifying to the public, why we are feared is because of unpredictability. With the illness, if is not treated effectively, there is a chance of uncertain behavior, a chance for the  “X-Factor,” an unpredictability, an unknown that fiction writers love to scare us with.

The answer on a national level is to approach this disease as we do all other diseases: to understand it, to educate the public and to offer effective treatment for everyone who needs it. To bring it out into the light of day and remove the mystery and dread this illness has been shrouded in since the Dark Ages.

The answer on a personal level is to see ourselves as ambassadors, spokesmen and women for our illness. If we are responsible about seeking help when we need it. If we stick to treatment plans. If we’re honest and open about our disease. If we return judgment and prejudice with kindness and forgiveness we will turn this conditioning and uneducated stigma around by our own personal example. It won’t happen without enormous cost to both our nation’s coffers and to our own personal lives. But that’s how we change the world. The price we pay will be worth it a thousand times over, and we can give a gift to our children and our children’s children. A gift of less fear
to the new century.