When I picked up a copy of the Washington City Paper two weeks ago, I was thrilled to see that the cover story focused on an issue of great concern to all of us: the plight of the mentally ill. It is unfortunate, then, that Stephanie Mencimer and the City Paper editors presented her story in a sensationalistic, insensitive tone that serves only to further stigmatize the mentally ill. Was it really necessary to attempt to be clever and use the subtitle “The kooks of hazard” on Page 3? The mentally ill are not the walking weapons of mass destruction that Mencimer posits them to be. There have been tragic instances where a neglected severely mentally ill person committed an act of violence. However, most who suffer from a form of mental illness are not violent.
I would like to know what stories Mencimer refers to when she claims that “mental illness seems to lurk everywhere you turn in stories about al Qaeda.” To link mental illness to terrorism is equivocal and irresponsible. History, today’s headlines, and even the Bush administration have acknowledged that government repression and human-rights abuses, not medical problems, create terrorists. If you look among the ranks of members of terrorist groups, you’ll find that they’re not recruited from mental institutions but rather countries where those who peacefully express their political views face torture, lengthy prison sentences, and worse.
Mencimer rightly criticizes the woefully inadequate services provided to the mentally ill in Washington, D.C. Yet her repeated comments that murders could have been prevented had a particular person been confined to a psychiatric facility suggest that institutionalization is the only solution. There are many levels of mental illness and many forms of treatment, institutionalization included. What is really needed is reform of our health-care system, which places psychiatric care at the bottom of its priorities.
Not all of the mentally ill who committed violent acts are reluctant to take medication or stay in a psychiatric facility. For example, James Colburn, a young paranoid schizophrenic in Texas, remained in stable condition, on medication, in a mental hospital until his parents used up their life savings paying for his treatment. Despite his desire to remain, he was forced out. He ended up murdering a hitchhiker while undergoing a hallucinatory episode. He was executed in Texas last March.
According to Mencimer, 5 percent of homicides are committed by a mentally ill person. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, deaths by suicide outnumber deaths by homicide 5 to 3. The primary victims of the “mentally ill who wreak misery” are the mentally ill themselves. You’d never know it from reading the City Paper, however.