It was 9:30 a.m. Monday morning. I was in the middle of my weekly meeting with him when my boss began to describe what he saw from the window of his office. Instinctively he closed the door and locked it. When we ended our call, I heard a TV turned on and I headed towards the sound. The press was already at Virginia Tech, and I can still imagine what I saw live on TV back then.
The shootings and every shooting in the last weeks really brings my past to my present. And as someone living with a serious mental illness, the media coverage is damaging.
While the victim I most identified with was the shooter, it was difficult to incorporate the Virginia Tech footage into my world. It took years to believe three decades of scientific research showing that people with mental illness were no more likely to resort to violence than the general public. In the recent news coverage of the Buffalo shooting, the press has once again raised the alarm that policymakers need to make sure guns are not accessible to criminals and the mentally ill.
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It has been centuries old to equate the mentally ill with criminals. In ancient Greek, “stigma” was a mark used to mark slaves and criminals. If you had a brand, you would be “stamped”. In medieval times, those who were not burned at the stake were chained to walls or beds in asylums and institutions.
But stigma has been steadily increasing in the United States since 1996. I stigmatized myself significantly after I was shot. After I finished my master’s in 2006, I was in a satisfying job. I had a happy marriage. I was active in my church and had a great network of friends. But I believed that I was weak and flawed because I needed services that I did not need for 5 years. My self-esteem was shaken, and with it all the joy in my life was gone.
As news broke of the shooting in Buffalo last weekend, my mind went back to the days after Virginia Tech was hit.
Drillfield Drive was packed with double-parked press cars. At one of the building entrances, a maroon and orange wreath and “Announcement to the media. We ask that you respect our grief and healing. Please do not do Media after this point.” A phone number was provided for interview requests. “Virginia Tech Community” signed.
The press has painted beautiful pictures of the lives lost in eviscerating creatures for failing to heed early warning signs.
But what worried me the most was the press coverage of the shooter himself.
The shooter had a history of psychiatric hospitalization. Looking for someone to blame, the press took a deep dive into her medical history and began pointing out the behavioral health system in Virginia. What they needed to do was dispel the stigmatized stereotype that the mentally ill are dangerous.
Seung-Hui Cho was a mass murderer. But his violence was better predicted by the ideology and pursuit of his writings than by his psychiatric hospitalization.
The link between mental illness and violence is weak and indirect. It is unlikely that perpetrators of gun violence have previously been hospitalized, had multiple victims, or were involved in a mass shooting. The severity is rarely caused by psychosis, so it is unlikely to be reduced with medication. The probability of resorting to armed violence does not differ between individuals with and without a history of psychiatric hospitalization.
Citing Cho’s psychiatric problems as the reason for his murderous behavior has fueled the flames of prejudice against people living with mental illness and ignited anger and fear in our community. Policymakers have highlighted this stigma by responding to public outcry with promises of funding and reform.
Using the public stigma of danger as a method of gaining approval for increased spending on mental health negatively impacts people living with mental illness, their caregivers and communities. And when public perceptions and policies about mental illness are shaped by highly publicized but rare cases of gun violence against strangers, they are unlikely to help people with mental illness or improve public safety.
Stigma, on the other hand, is is a public health problem.
According to stigma experts, the best way to fight stigma is contact. Disclosure of mental illness is key, as mental illness is an invisible illness.
This is where the press can help.
We are more likely to be victims than perpetrators, but you wouldn’t know from the American media. Include people who disclose their mental illness or psychiatric experience as subject matter experts in reporting. Allowing them to provide the context of actual experience with mental illness can blast stigma and offer a reality check to those whose only connection to mental health issues comes through their celebrity journalism, which often focuses on people like Britney Spears or Kanye West.
Those of us with mental illnesses know most about Virginia’s behavioral health system because we are the most affected. We need to make our voices heard.
It’s time to tell the public the truth. Our life depends on it.
Recognizing the importance of representation, Jennifer Spangler advocates involving those living with mental illness in public policy decisions that affect them.