Every time there is a public tragedy involving an individual with a serious mental illness, many well known Mental Health organizations make the predictable statements about how "people who have mental illness are no more violent than others" followed closely by "and they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators." If that truly is the case, then why do we continue to see so many horrendous stories involving violence toward family members? Police? If that is the case then why are families, who have loved ones battling serious mental illness, told to call the police when they reach out to a Crisis line for help? Why do psychiatric nurses have panic buttons and some psychiatric wards have locks?
I run the risk of being accused of reinforcing "stigma" here. It's not an easy topic and I certainly do not want people to think my loved one is a person to be afraid of. He most certainly is not, when receiving proper treatment. And there's the key, treatment. People who have untreated serious mental illness can become violent. Is it because they are evil? Or is it the same reason we provide a secure environment with treatment for people suffering from Alzheimer's or Dementia?
Delusions and hallucinations are scary things. They tell the brain something that is not true. Imagine believing that someone is out to get you or that voices are sending you messages through the television. Psychosis is real and it damages the brain causing loss of cognition. Not receiving treatment for psychosis is akin to not receiving CPR and life saving medications for a heart attack. And yet, we continue to neglect people who suffer this way and somehow expect them to follow the rules of society without our intervention. We cannot continue to downplay the consequences of untreated serious mental illness and bury our heads in the sand leaving this population completely trapped and vulnerable, and yes, leaving our communities at risk.
So, what does that mean for us moving forward? How do we move from ignorance and fear to help and hope? I propose a healthy dose of compassionate courage along with a few practical suggestions:
1. Educate Yourself
Do you know where to find help for someone who is experiencing a psychotic break in your area? What if the person doesn't want to get help or doesn't think they need help? What would you do? In Arizona we've made a cheat sheet of sorts with the main on ramps to services in Maricopa County. Get familiar with the resources available in your area.
2. No Resources? Advocate!
Visit, call, and write to your legislators! Connect with other advocates, or begin your own group. It only takes one to start. In Arizona you can visit rescuesmi.com to learn more about the issues and suggested state policies to implement. For national issues, visit mentalillnesspolicy.org.
3. Attend a Crisis Care Team Training for Faith Groups
If you are a member of a local church, or place of worship, consider joining us for our soon to be quarterly Crisis Care Team training here in Arizona. We will equip you to intentionally, and compassionately, work together in your faith group to come along side of people and families at risk. We have a special focus on the issue of serious mental illness.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of action items, but it is a starting place. Join us by taking those first steps toward helping people with compassionate courage. We can do this, and we can definitely do it together.