Stigma unfair to those with mental illness

Jennifer Broderick was in her early 20s the first time she was caught stealing. She can’t remember what she took. Stuff was just stuff.

It was only the act of stealing that satisfied her urges, and it didn’t matter that it was against the law.

More than a decade later, Broderick’s psychiatrist told her depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and strong borderline personality traits were behind her erratic impulses, which at times caused criminal behavior.

For most of her life, people had assumed she was just “overly emotional.”

Many others are like Broderick, slapped with overgeneralized labels without understanding the underlying illness that brings out the unintended behavior.

Although statistics show most people with mental illness are not violent, nationally, people have started equating mental illness with crime, feeding off a string of mass shootings and other fatal attacks in which the perpetrators had serious psychiatric problems.

Adam Lanza, who killed 20 elementary school students and six staff members before taking his own life in 2012, was said to have “significant mental health issues.” James Holmes, who is awaiting trial this summer for a 2012 shooting rampage during the premiere of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” has been described as having “a profound family history of mental illness,” and is currently taking anti-psychotic drugs. After Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree last May, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said he had been concealing a long history of mental instability.

In the public’s mind, these tragedies validate the stigma.

The connection touched home recently when military veteran David Parker engaged Mansfield Police in a 26-hour standoff.

Though law enforcement has not officially said Parker had a mental illness, neighbors said it was their understanding he did. Mansfield Police Chief Ken Coontz said there “may have been some underlying crisis issues.”

Yet, neighbors described Parker as quiet and strange. None called him violent.

Editorial | Mental illness and crime: Stigma is unfair

Analysis: Mental illness, crime unrelated

As it turns out, on April 27, Parker was dangerous, firing at police on at least 22 different occasions throughout the standoff, which ended with his death. But the 21,170 other days of Parker’s 58-year life, he wasn’t.

And that’s how it is for most who live with mental illnesses.

They hold jobs, raise families, run companies, coach and live seemingly normal lives, by society’s standard. Their illness does not increase the likelihood of their exhibiting violent or criminal behavior any more than eating a steak increases the likelihood of an individual having a heart attack.

It’s a factor, not a cause. And it’s preventable.

“Mental illness is not a dirty word; it’s not something to be scared of,” Broderick said. “It’s something to be talked about for better understanding. If we don’t, it could be fatal, and it doesn’t have to be.”

Criminal or victim?

Nationally, the misconception inadvertently sparked the question, is there a direct connection between mental illness and crime?

Numerous academic publications and advocacy organizations adamantly say no.

A 2014 American Psychological Association study found that most criminal offenders with mental illness did not display a pattern of crime over their lifetime. Rather, crimes increased during periods when symptoms of their mental illnesses were active.

Unfortunately, when left untreated, some of those symptoms worsen and can contribute to heinous crimes, which earn big headlines in media that can feed the public’s fears. But the study’s lead researcher Jillian Peterson, PhD, maintains the vast majority of people with mental illness are “not violent, not criminal and not dangerous,” she said in an APA article on her study.

Richland County’s crime statistics support the same, a News Journal analysis found.

Mental health related calls are just a small portion of the cases county officers handle on a yearly basis, though the number has increased slightly over the five year period from 2009 to January 2013-June 2014, according to a News Journal database of reports from Richland County Sheriff, Mansfield Police and Ontario Police.

But more than the majority of those calls involved the individual as a victim of self-harm, not a suspect in criminal activity.

Where crimes are being committed, they’re mainly misdemeanors, county judges say, directly resulting from the disorientation or impulses of the illness — criminal damaging, trespassing, resisting arrest, shoplifting. (It would be impossible to track the full number of arrested individuals suffering from a mental illness because those stats are not kept.)

“Most of the crime that occurs with the severely mentally ill has more to do with their defense of themselves, versus being offensive,” said Erin Schaefer, vice president of Clinical Services at Catalyst Life Center. “They may become aggressive, but it’s more out of fear of thinking somebody is trying to hurt them.”

Their actions typically aren’t malicious, Schaefer said.

That proved true when Brian McLoughlin was arrested on an aggravated robbery charge in 2012.

When McLoughlin walked into a local gas station, passed a note to the clerk asking for money and held up an airsoft gun, he didn’t intend to hurt anyone, he said. The clerk told him they didn’t have any money, and he simply picked up the note and left.

No threats.

When police arrested him, he told them he “didn’t have the courage to pull the trigger,” according to the police report. He just wanted money to support a gambling addiction and he didn’t know how else to get it.

McLoughlin was able to complete the Richland County Mental Health Court program and get proper medication for autism and mental health issues. He’s now living a crime-free life outside prison bars.

“(Mental illness has) traditionally carried a stigma,” specialty docket Judge Jerry Ault said. “We don’t stigmatize people with cancer, blood disorders, heart issues and we shouldn’t do it with people with other health issues like mental health.”

“Anybody can suffer from it,” Judge Frank Ardis Jr. added.

The mental health continuum

While mental illnesses contribute very little to the overall rate of violence in a community, they are prevalent and in need of attention, experts said.

About 1 in 4 adults — approximately 61 million Americans — experience a mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

It is defined as a disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation or memory that grossly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, or the ability to meet the ordinary demands of life. While there are sometimes dual diagnoses with developmental disorders, most individuals with mental illness are of typical intelligence.

Further, 1 in 17 live with a serious illness, the most common of which include depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Everyone is traveling on the mental health continuum, dipping in and out of depression or other issues sometimes on a daily basis, according to NAMI Richland County Executive Director Mary Kay Pierce.

“Everybody has to worry about their mental health. How are you reacting day to day with life? How are you coping? How are your relationships? How are you feeling today? That affects all of us every day,” Piece said.

Most people recover naturally from emotional or traumatic hardships. But it’s when normal mood changes become major personality changes that people need to seek help, and fast.

Mental illnesses are not preventable, but they are treatable, and the earlier the better. Appropriate medical care can return individuals to their “normal,” productive lives. Without help, a person’s mental state can continue to deteriorate, which can lead to episodes of psychosis where hallucinations do increase the risk of violence.

“None of us are exempt from this,” said Veronica Groff, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst Life Services, which provides counseling and rehabilitation services to the mentally ill. “In general, the people we serve, in my opinion, really want to be OK. They want to be like you or I. They want to obey the law and have a happy life.”


Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

The seven most common mental illnesses

Depression — Depression affects roughly 25 million Americans each year, and occurs 70 percent more frequently in women than in men. Without treatment, the frequency and severity of symptoms tend to increase over time and can lead to suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. Depression is a normal human emotion, but clinical depression is a serious emotional and biological disease that may require long-term treatment.

Schizophrenia — Schizophrenia affects more than 2.4 million Americans over the age of 18, and more often appears in men in their late teens or early twenties. When not treated, schizophrenia interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others, and is often marked by hallucinations and delusions. The illness can cause unusual, inappropriate and sometimes unpredictable and disorganized behavior.

Bipolar Disorder — Bipolar Disorder is a chronic illness that affects more than 6.1 million Americans, with more than half of those cases beginning between the ages of 15 and 25. It is marked by recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months, dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly. The irregular patterns make it hard to diagnose.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) — Obsessive-compulsive Disorder affects approximately 3.3 million people, with most developing the illness in childhood. Their obsessions are intrusive, irrational thoughts— unwanted ideas or impulses that repeatedly consume a person’s mind. On one level, the individual knows the thoughts are irrational, and on the other they fear they might be true, creating anxiety. The obsessions are experienced for more than an hour each day, in a way that interferes with the individual’s life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in 30 U.S. adults experience PTSD in a given year. Though women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with the illness, the risk is much higher in veterans of war. The illness is brought on by trauma, and is marked by recurrent nightmares or flashbacks; physical reactions to triggers that symbolize or resemble the initial traumatic event; avoidance of people, places and things that remind the individual of the trauma; feelings of detachment; and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Attention-deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates ADD and ADHD affect 9 percent of children aged 3-17, and 2-4 percent of adults. They are conditions characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Borderline Personality Disorder — Borderline Personality Disorder is one of the newer recognized illnesses, but is estimated to affect 2 to 5 percent of Americans, often affecting females more than males. The disorder is difficult to diagnose – and often misdiagnosed as another illness – but is characterized by intense and dysregulated emotions, self-harming acts and stormy relationships

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Coming next

What is the relationship between crime and mental illness? Are the odds higher that a person suffering with a mental illness will commit a series and brutal crime? Or, have accounts of high-profile cases exaggerated the connection, furthering the unfair stigma about mental illness?

In a five-day series, the News Journal will examine these issues.

Today — An editorial on page 2D of our print edition explains why the News Journal decided to take a closer look at this issue.

Monday — The darker side of mental illness, with a look back at two local prominent criminal cases.

Tuesday — Getting help forces tough decisions for family, individuals and law enforcement.

Wednesday — Richland County uses a wrap-around approach to help treat those with mental illness.

Thursday — Mental illness is not a death sentence, learning to live with the diagnosis.