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.

NAMI High Country Offers Support

By Joe Veler,

NAMI HighCountry Board Member

High Country NAMI Supporters,

We hope everyone has a wonderful 4th of July holiday! Since the first Monday of the month IS the 4th of July, we have not scheduled a meeting for July. We look forward to seeing you at our next monthly meeting on Monday, August 1st 2016.

As the nation mourns the tragedy in Orlando and the world attempts to sort through the tragedies in Turkey and India, we hope to offer support.  We thought the following articles may be of interest to our members and supporters. NAMI National is reaching out to law enforcement agencies to help fill the needs of those with mental illness. Law enforcement agencies report that actual crime rates are down, but are noticing an increase in domestic or civil disputes. Many of these civil matters are related to mental illness and the agencies are working quickly to get educated and to educate on crisis intervention to decrease the likelihood for crisis escalation. We all hope to prevent tragedies like the recent Orlando shootings or any crisis where and when possible.

NAMI High Country supports local police departments by providing In Our Own Voice presentations during their annual CIT training sessions in Ashe & Watauga counties. We also use part of our funding to sponsor the events and provide refreshments in these multi-day sessions. We are always complimented on our presentations and have been told the listeners receive some of the most beneficial information through the stories that our presenters provide. Nami High Country presenters are simply an extension of NAMI’s overall push to educate, support, and advocate for mental illness training with local law enforcement. We feel you may be interested in the following news articles and resources.  To find out more about how NAMI is pursuing these educational endeavors while building bridges and improving safety for all, please join us in the days, months and years ahead. Membership is open to all with individual, family and discounted rates to ensure inclusive practices. We are also listed in the non-profit organization options through Amazon Smiles. WELCOME! Hope to see you August 1, 2016 @ 7:00 p.m. at the Watauga Country Library in Boone, NC. Be an ally and check out NAMI!


What is an In Our Own Voice presentation?

What is Crisis Intervention Training?


Guide for Law Enforcement Leaders: “Preparing for the Unimaginable”

Untangling Gun Violence from Mental Illness

Report: Police departments need mental health programs

NC Task Force Takes Broad Look At Mental Health, Criminal Justice