Violence, mental illness, and stigma

(Mike Tanner, Treasurer NAMI HC)

       A recent New York Post report begins, “The maniac driver who mowed down

pedestrians in Times Square knew he was losing his marbles ….” 1 The driver, Richard Rojas,

may indeed be suffering from some form of mental illness, but the Post’s report plays too easily

into misconceptions that readily link violence and mental illness.

Though we have learned much about mental illness over the last 50 years, fear of people

with mental illness has increased. 2 This fear rests on the mistaken assumption that most people

with mental illness are prone to violence. Yet the risk of violence from people with severe

mental illness is miniscule compared to other demographic groups (according to one study

only 2 percent, compared to 40 percent for males 24 years and younger 3 ).

Rather than being the most violent among us, people with severe mental illness tend to

be the most vulnerable. Symptoms such as impaired judgment and perception and

disorganized reasoning, along with frequent homelessness, leave them far more susceptible to

becoming victims than most of us.

Too often, we assume that there is no help for people with severe mental illness, but

experience shows that, with appropriate treatment and services, they can enter recovery and

live fulfilling lives within their families and communities. Instead, fear leads to their exclusion

from our communities, rendering them invisible to most of us (until, that is, there is something

sensational to report). Fear and stigma enable shameful neglect of their social, economic, and

medical needs, both in our personal encounters and in our public policy. If Rojas had actually

received the help that, according to the Post, he said he had sought, there may have been no

incident to report, no death to mourn, no injuries suffered.

We assume also that we who are not mental health professionals can do nothing about

mental illness, but each of us can make a difference. It begins with ridding ourselves of fear and

misconceptions. There is no better way to do this than face-to- face friendship with people with

mental illness.

I learned this late in life as Vicar of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta from

2006 to 2014. About 30 years ago, that small parish made a beginning of extending friendship

to its neighbors with mental illness by welcoming them into the life of the parish. When public


day programs were cut, it established its own day program, in which people with mental illness

and volunteers have worked and played together for over 20 years.

There fear and stigma dissolve as people form new and previously unimaginable

friendships. Common fears of violence vanish in the face of real people with real loves and joys

and pain and gifts. There I learned that it is not people with mental illness that threaten our

well-being, but our own unwillingness to extend friendship to those who need it. Real security

lies in the open and generous embrace of those we fear.

NAMI High Country offers similar opportunities for friendship and mutual support

among people with lived experience of mental illness and people who love someone with

mental illness.


1 trying-to- get-help- times-square- driver-says- in-jailhouse-


2 See Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "Blueprint for Change: Ending Chronic

Homelessness for Persons with Serious Mental Illnesses and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders"

(Rockville, Md.: U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 2003), 26.

3 See Choe, Jeanne Y., Linda A. Teplin, and Karen M. Abram, "Perpetuation of Violence, Violent Victimization,

and Severe Mental Illness: Balancing Public Health Concerns," Psychiatric Services, Vol. 59, No. 2 (2008): 161.

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