As one of the roughly 60 million Americans living with a mental illness, I was happy to hear President Obama highlight the issue at last week's National Conference on Mental Health. I was particularly pleased by his recognition that "the overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent [and] will never pose a threat to themselves or others."
But that's not what many of my colleagues in the media picked up on. Rather, they turned the event into another misleading story about gun control, directly referencing the Newtown tragedy -- despite the fact that President Obama didn't mention it once in his 15-minute speech. While he made a vague reference to "tragedies we have the power to prevent," his speech -- and the conference itself -- was not about mass shootings or "crazed" gunmen. Rather, it was about the need to reduce stigma and increase access to quality mental health care.
Still, in reporting on the conference, much of the mainstream media devoted countless minutes and paragraphs to a single unthinkable tragedy committed by a single criminal who may or may not have had a mental illness, instead of focusing on the tens of millions of innocent, non-violent Americans living with mental illness. These are the people who need and deserve our attention, yet they are often the ones least likely to get it -- and the results are nothing short of deadly.
Despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of all gun fatalities are suicides, most public discussion around gun control has nothing to do with suicide prevention and everything to do with rare, gruesome and sensational mass shootings. The media incessantly and irresponsibly portray the mentally ill as dangerous and violent, when the truth is that we are no more likely to commit violent crimes than our allegedly normal counterparts when you control for substance abuse. In fact, studies show that we are ten times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and four times more likely to be victims than the general population -- and that's not even accounting for suicide.
In his speech, President Obama drew special attention to the fact that on average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. The total count is nearly five times that. And given over 90 percent of suicide victims suffer from a mental illness, many of these deaths could well be prevented with timely and appropriate medical intervention.
But why would anyone living with a mental illness feel comfortable admitting it, let alone seeking help, when the media constantly depict us as violent predators, criminals and mass murderers?
Strangely enough, one of the new mental health initiatives announced at last week's conference came out of the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB claims to be creating a national public service campaign intended to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Sorry, but I'm unimpressed. Not one to criticize without providing an alternative, however, I'd like to offer some advice for the NAB and its member stations:
Forget the public service announcements. There's no point if you're going to sandwich them between lengthy reports depicting people like me as caricatures every time a white guy commits what ought to be called a terrorist attack but never is. You may as well be running cat food commercials for all the good they'll do us.
So here it is, my radical suggestion: Instead of producing a few nauseatingly celebrity-packed PSAs, try producing some more responsible reporting.