Staring Off Into Space While Wearing a Jumpsuit in Court: The Stigmatization of the Mentally Ill


“Stigmatization of people with mental disorders has persisted throughout history. It is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and/or avoidance. Stigma refers to a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.”

–Arizona Department of Human Services

In case you haven’t been paying attention, another school shooting happened.

This time in Connecticut at an elementary school, where 27 people were gunned down simply because they were there.  Most of the victims were children.  Though I read and watched information about this tragedy, I also paid attention to the wide variety of “civilian perceptions” of the shooter himself.  I overheard someone say “Mentally ill people are less likely to do something like this, but you have to be insane to shoot people like that.”

“And kids no less,” says another guy.

Since then, I have read blogs analyzing the situation, focusing on everything from gun laws (and how weak they are) to how this shooting perpetuates White denial.  So far, I’ve only read one article about mental illness and how capitalism is a detriment to those seeking treatment.

Ahhhh.  Mental illness. That label again.  The one that either helps or hinders a person (or group of people) depending on the ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender of those inflicted with it. In fact, Parrimore (2012) reports that “45 million American adults suffer from mental illness” (p. 1).  When people speak of mental illness, however, we speak of the institutions associated with treating those inflicted and how those institutions eventually failed those people through no fault of their own.  Also, is there rarely a discussion on the stigmatization of mental illness and the consequences that unfold if those suffering are left untreated.

Take Jared Lee Loughner for example.  Here he is:

Image

He is the young man who shot former Governor Gabby Giffords at point range and murdered six people, including 9 year old Christina Taylor Green .  Though it took place in Tucson, Arizona, the nature and severity of the shooting ignited the same type of debates we are having now (gun control laws, governmental responsibility).  Following the shootings, the mainstream media painted Loughner  as a “psychopath” and psychologists appeared on news programs to diagnose this man with every mental disorder published in the DSM-IV.

While everyone fell for this chatter, the questions of how and why Loughner even reached that point remained unanswered.  Well it turned out that Loughner was breaking down mentally way before he even knew Former Gov. Giffords.  Loughner was born and raised in a quiet home, living with a family who interacted very little with neighbors.  Loughner was described as a sweet boy until high school, when his behavior and personality began shifting.  He then starting abusing alcohol and drugs, which only intensified the behavior he displayed.

When a student at Lima Community College, he was known for his disruptive outbursts both in class and the libraries.  By this time, he is known by the college police, who later discovered YouTube videos of Loughner defaming the college.  After being suspended, school officials informed Loughner he could return to school if he agreed to a psych evaluation and adhere to the school’s Code of Conduct.  He agreed to neither and did not return to school.

Meanwhile, he produced political YouTube videos that appeared to be both incoherent and sporadic.  His political views varied according to those who did know him–some said he was a radical leftist while others described him as conservative.  However, they all agreed that his behavior changed and they didn’t know who he was anymore.  A year after leaving school, the shooting occurred.

I bring up Loughner’s story because it illustrates the consequences brought on by stigma associated with mental illness.  Though it was obvious that this young man was suffering from some form of schizophrenia (based on the onset and progression of the symptoms), he was not encouraged to seek treatment.  His behavior began changing in high school, yet nothing was done to help him.  If something was going on in the home or at school, did anyone file a report?  If not, why?  As a result, Loughner was possibly dismissed by school officials as odd and menacing when he was once arrested as a teen for defacing property.

I also bring up this story because it highlights the stigma among the mentally ill, professionals and media.  As stated before, Loughner had the opportunity to seek treatment, but he declined because–like any other individual–he did not want to be labeled as crazy or unstable.  Just based on his mindset, he did not trust any system and it was more likely a slap in the face to him that the school made such an offer.   The tele-professionals who diagnosed him on CNN only added to the stigma and the stereotype that all mentally ill people will commit murder after reaching a breaking point.  And the media is no better.  I am not just talking about the news, but entertainment media as well.  Mentally ill people tend to kill others on shows like “American Horror Story” and “Law and Order” and these shows actually add fuel to the fire by playing into stereotypes.

My brain is exhausted from all this thinking about mental illness, so I hope what I wrote makes sense, Readers. I had to say something because I feel the media is, yet again, trying to sensationalize another tragedy by focusing on the insanity of the shooter(s) involved.  I am not asking anyone to have sympathy for those who commit such crimes, either.  But we have to have enough compassion to ask how these folks evolved into the broken people we see smiling and staring off into space, wearing a jumpsuit in court. 

References

Arizona Department of Human Health (2012). “Fight Stigma.” Retrieved from http://www.azdhs.gov/bhs/stigma/index.htm

Parramore, L.S. (2012).  “In the Wake of Another Mass Shooting, Let’s Talk About America’s Dangerously  Gutted Mental Healthcare System.” Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/gun-control-isnt-only-option-lets-talk-about-americas-dangerously-gutted-mental

 

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