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Mental illness warrants our compassion, not fear

For the last 14 years, I have been lucky to work at the Carriage House here in Fort Wayne. We use the non-traditional Clubhouse Model to help people recover and reintegrate into the community. You should come visit; it’s pretty cool. Every day I am surrounded by people with the most serious mental illnesses. And I am safer here than I am anywhere else in the world.

But I get ahead of myself.

First, let me say that we should prioritize funding mental health services. As a society, we haven’t been doing a great job of that for a number of years.

It’s reported that states have cut non-Medicaid funding by almost $2 billion since 2009. In 2010, Indiana changed the way mental health is reimbursed through Medicaid and cut about $70 million in services. My program lost about half its funding.

We should fund mental health services because people get better. Folks go back to work. They return to school. They stay out of the hospital. They fall in love, raise families, buy houses and pay taxes.

We should fund mental health services because people shouldn’t be impoverished and isolated because of illness. Or feared. Or forgotten. We should fund mental health services because it makes sense both economically and ethically. These are good reasons to fund mental health services.

A not-so-good reason to fund mental health services is that we are afraid people with mental illness are going to get guns and kill people.

In the last couple of years, there has been a lot a press around the connection between mental illness and violence, especially with the recent high-profile mass killings. It has been hard for many of us who provide mental health services to know how best to respond to these cases.

Calling attention to the dramatically underfunded and threadbare mental health system is critical – the attention is long overdue. However, doing so by implying that people with mental illness are dangerous and scary is both wrong and counterproductive.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has done some pretty exhaustive research on the connection between violence and mental illness. It produced a fact sheet supported by years of peer-reviewed research. You can find it at Here’s what it says:

•The discrimination and stigma associated with mental illnesses largely stem from the link between mental illness and violence in the minds of the general public.

•This link is often promoted by the entertainment and news media.

•Most citizens believe persons with mental illnesses are dangerous.

•As a result, Americans are hesitant to interact with people who have mental illnesses.

•But in truth, people have little reason for such fears.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that, “Research has shown that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses.”

The Institute of Medicine adds, “Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small,” and further, “the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population.”

This perceived automatic connection between violence and mental illness winds up having a very significant impact on the people with whom I am proud to work. Nearly every day we see examples in workplaces, schools, families and churches of stigma and discrimination. It is crushing for an individual and often results in further isolation, which is about the least helpful thing for somebody recovering from a mental illness.

Which brings me back to my community at the Carriage House. We provide evidence-based, highly effective rehabilitation. Members and the staff work side-by-side every day to help people reclaim their lives.

I wish more people could join us for a day. You would probably experience much the same stuff we do; hope, challenge, acceptance. But after meeting us and working with us, I bet the one thing you wouldn’t feel is fear.

So let’s please talk about mental health. Let’s make a priority of fixing the broken system of care. Let’s re-invest resources that we have pulled out of mental health services. But let’s do it because it is the right thing economically and ethically – not because of misunderstanding and fear.

Andy Wilson is executive director of Carriage House in Fort Wayne. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.