Time to address myths regarding mental illness

Once again we read about an individual who has spent years in prison whose only “offense” is that he suffered from a mental illness. This time, it is Josue Ortiz. However, the similarities to the Anthony Capozzi case are striking. Both these gentlemen represent the truth mentioned in a recent Another Voice by Dr. Steven Dubovsky, head of the Psychiatry Department at UB Medical School: that individuals with a mental illness are much more apt to be victims rather than perpetrators of crime. I also believe that these gentlemen are examples of how wrong it is to profile those who suffer from a mental illness as more dangerous than others. Apparently, Ortiz committed no crime. But he was duped by the fear generated by his illness to confess, and this was readily used against him by those investigating the case.

In recent months, there has been a loud public cry to target those with a mental illness as potential threats. Just think of how this aggravates the already glaring stigma toward those with a mental illness. It suggests that to be mentally ill is automatically to be considered a greater threat. I believe it is time that we recognize and deal with the realities rather than the myths that are so often mistakenly presented. The cause of violence is not mental illness, but much more likely the inability to handle some extreme anger and upset. While those with a mental illness are indeed susceptible to this, so too are any one of us.

I agree that we need to respond to the needs of those with a mental illness and find ways to enact preventive measures before the onset of violent behavior. However, I fear that we may be moving in the opposite direction. Our public system of care tends to be available to those who have shown themselves already a threat to the community. Until and unless they have gained attention (whether through incarceration, hospitalizations, arrests) they are very likely to go unnoticed and less likely to receive adequate care. No wonder so much goes unrecognized and unattended until it is too late.

Charles J. Sabatino