Rachel Pruchno Ph.D.

All in the Family

Mental Illness vs. Terrorism

Some Tragedies Are Not Caused By Mental Illness

Posted Dec 16, 2015

Stuart Palley/ZUMA Press/Corbis
Source: Stuart Palley/ZUMA Press/Corbis

When I learned 14 people were dead and more wounded, gunned down in San Bernardino at a holiday celebration earlier this month, my initial reaction was: I hope it’s a terrorist.

I was relieved that yet another person with untreated serious mental illness hadn’t caused the massacre. There have been far too many of these tragedies in the past several years. And each time, when a person like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, or James Holmes goes on a rampage killing innocent schoolchildren, moviegoers, or grocery shoppers, the stigma of mental illness rekindles.

Over the past two decades, beliefs about the dangerousness of persons with mental illness have increased and apprehension toward them has grown.1 One study found that, in 2006 more people were unwilling to have someone with schizophrenia as a neighbor than they were in 1996.2

A major cause of this stigma is the perception that people with mental illness are dangerous. However, many studies have shown that people with serious mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general public. But, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, it is individuals with untreated mental illness, many of whom are also abusing alcohol or drugs, who commit almost all the acts of violence associated with mental illness.

Those with serious mental illness are painfully aware that episodes of violence by people with untreated mental illness increases stigma against all who suffer mental illness. In 1999, when a man with schizophrenia killed two people in a church library in Salt Lake City, within hours the local mental health center received calls from clients who feared the public would want to retaliate against them.3

A new report concludes that public beliefs that people with mental illness are prone to violence leads to prejudice against people with serious mental illness. The desire to avoid public stigma causes some people with serious mental illness to drop out of treatment while others avoid treatment entirely.4  

Stigma is unlikely to be reduced until we decrease violent behaviors by people with serious mental illness. This can only happen when we ensure that sick people get the treatment they need.

H.R. 2646 “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015,” a bill making its way through Congress, would overhaul our broken mental health system. The bill, proposed jointly by Dr. Tim Murphy (R-PA), the only clinical psychologist in Congress, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), a former chief of psychiatric nursing at the Veteran’s Administration, has bipartisan support with 166 co-sponsors. H.R. 2646 aims to eliminate waste by defunding programs that lack evidence of efficacy. It provides programs, care, and resources for people with serious mental illnesses and support for their families who help them.

H.R. 2646:

  • Provides funding for Assisted Outpatient Treatment, ensuring that the small, but important, group of people who are the most seriously ill get the care they need. 
  • Allows people who cannot live safely in the community to receive care in protected environments.
  • Empowers families of people with SMI to become part of the care team.
  • Focuses on people with the most serious of mental illnesses rather than on the worried well.

H.R. 2646 has the support of many professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems. It has the backing of grassroots organizations including NAMI and Mental Health America.

No one wants to see any more innocent people mowed down by either terrorists or people with untreated serious mental illness. Encouraging your Congressman to support H.R. 2646 is a good start toward solving the mental illness side of the problem.

  1. Schomerus, G. et al., (2012). Evolution of public attitudes about mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 125(6), 440–452.
  2. Pescosolido, B.A., Martin, J.K., Long, J.S. et al. (2010). A disease like any other? A decade of change in public reactions to schizophrenia, depression, and alcohol dependence. American Journal of Psychiatry, 167, 1321-1330.
  3. Jarvik, E. (1999) Mental health clients fear growing stigma. Deseret News, April 24, p A-1.
  4. Corrigan, P.W., Druss, B.G., & Perlick, D.A. (2014). The impact of mental illness stigma on seeking and participating in mental health care. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(2), 37-70.