Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY)

We too often forget that those struggling with mental illness are constantly forced to fight a battle on two fronts. Not only do they have to grapple with themselves—with their own thoughts and mind—but they also have to contend with the negative assumptions made about those with mental illness, which are pervasive in our society.

Those stereotypes, though, are hardly a figment of their imagination. Public opinion suggests that people with mental illness and violent tendencies go hand in hand. In fact, at least half of the American public believes that individuals with mental illness are inherently more violent.

These claims are unfounded and they are completely unacceptable. Attitudes like this do nothing but aggravate the stigma that so many have spent decades trying to overcome.

But any progress we have made to change attitudes is incrementally undone every time there is an incident of mass violence in this country and politicians or pundits take to cable news to tout mental health reform as the solution. These repeated claims are re-stigmatizing mental illness and they can no longer be our reaction to isolated and extreme events.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that a person with a mental illness is incapable of committing a crime. But the fact is that people with mental illness are an order of magnitude more likely to be victims of a crime than perpetrators.

Violent crimes are committed by violent people. Plain and simple. Study after study has shown that there is no connection between those with mental illness and violence. Violence is not a characteristic of one particular demographic and, while it may be seductive to believe otherwise, these terrible episodes of mass violence cannot be predicted.

The need for meaningful reforms that better serve the needs of patients and families experiencing mental illness is clear, but we cannot make unsubstantiated claims in order to scare the public into supporting reforms. That will only create a false sense of security, while ignoring the real issues and demonizing a community in the process.

Members on both sides of the aisle and passionate advocates across the country desperately want to see real improvements made to strengthen our mental health system. In response, we should put in place forward looking and inclusive policies that offer the necessary services, supports, and treatments to individuals so that recovery is an option. Likewise, we must build on the historic gains that the Affordable Care Act made for mental health coverage by expanding Medicaid and better enforcing our mental health parity laws. We also have to acknowledge that our current dysfunction stems in part from decades of broken promises and a chronic underinvestment in community based mental health services.

Unfortunately, when our national discourse is based upon the false premise that mental health reforms are the solution to mass violence, we end up with regressive proposals that, if enacted, would do more harm than good. Policies that, in the name of public safety, restrict patients’ civil rights, infringe on their privacy, or use the courts or law enforcement to force individuals to receive health care services take us in the wrong direction as a country and would reverse decades of progress. No credible witness believes that the fundamental problem ailing our mental health system is that individuals have too many rights.

At its core, these policies would take us back to outdated and biased treatment of those with mental illness by rolling back critical patient protections that would deter individuals from getting the support and medical care that they need. Perpetuating the harmful stigma that those with mental illness are more inclined to be violent is exactly what keeps people from seeking treatment when they need it most.

We are better than this. We need to make advancements on mental health issues in this country, but in so doing, we cannot advance a harmful and false understanding of these disorders.

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