The Santa Monica Disabilities Commission would like to formally respond to the March 2 edition of Dr. Barge’s “Life Matters” column. While Dr. Barge’s advice to leave the coordinated provision of outreach and services to homeless individuals to the professionals is sound, she goes on to paint a broad picture of people with mental illness (and those experiencing homelessness) as unstable and violent. This overly simplistic and negative portrayal of homelessness and mental illness sends a dangerous message to the public because it serves to further isolate and disempower a population already marginalized and subjected to daily discrimination. It is even more stigmatizing when a mental health professional like Dr. Barge incorrectly tries to make a link between a mental health diagnosis and a violent, dangerous or menacing behavior. The Commission would like to take this opportunity to provide some facts and extend an invitation to Dr. Barge and the community to learn more about the realities of mental illness.

The tragic reality is that people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. Researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University found that people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population. When you consider the added dangers associated with living on the streets and the threat of violence against individuals who are homeless, one can start to understand the ongoing trauma experienced by those who live under these conditions every day.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the inaccurate linkage between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public leads to the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness. Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, working with, renting to, or employing people with mental health disorders — especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness for the one-quarter of Americans that will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Mental illness is just like any other disability except that the discrimination associated with it is often fueled by fear and sometimes even hatred for the individual with the condition. As underscored by the doctor’s commentary, the stigma associated with mental illness contributes to a troubling cycle that compromises community support for solutions to homelessness and treatment for mental illness.

Unfortunately, our media is full of these negative portrayals. Most news accounts portray people with mental illness as dangerous or focus on other negative characteristics related to people with the disorder. In an attempt to counter these harmful stereotypes, the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission will be joining the City in recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness Month. We will be showing the Oscar winning film “Silver Linings Playbook” at the Santa Monica Main Library on May 16, followed by a panel discussion with clinicians and people in recovery from mental illness and substance abuse. These stories of recovery will help highlight the realities of mental illness – that people can and do recover. It takes a lot of work and, more often than not, the assistance of friends, family and the community to support that recovery.

TJ Hill is Vice Chair of the Santa Monica Disabilities Commission.

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