As much as TV pundits damage the cause of the mentally ill by often ascribing mass murders to "psychotics," as opposed to psychopaths, they are not alone in perpetuating stigma. Some of the worst offenders are charlatans who claim to be mentally ill after they have committed an atrocious crime or otherwise behaved badly.
Consider the case of Brian Nichols, the Atlanta resident who was convicted of murder last November. When jurors reached that verdict, they not only delivered justice to a community that lost four people to Nichols' 2005 shooting spree in and out of a courtroom, they also rejected the insanity defense brought by a hardened criminal and a liar.
Who could believe Nichols' claim that he had delusions about leading a "slave rebellion"?
Beyond the fact that Nichols, an African-American, attacked African-Americans in his supposed rebellion against white slave-owners, he committed these murders while on trial for rape. That was only the latest in a series of charges against him over the years, including assault, disorderly conduct and making "terroristic threats," according to Wikipedia.
We have seen this before.
About two years ago, in November of 2007, Leeland Eisenberg took hostages at one of Hillary Clinton's campaign offices in New Hampshire because he claimed that he needed to raise awareness about mental illness in this country.
Eisenberg, who according to the AP had used two Social Security numbers and changed his name from Ralph E. Woodward, Jr., had a string of criminal convictions going back several decades, was twice convicted of rape, once escaped from a halfway house in Massachusetts, and was released from prison in March of 2005 after serving 11 to 20 years for his second rape conviction.
On the day he took hostages at Clinton's campaign office, he was scheduled to appear in New Hampshire state court on charges of domestic violence filed against him by his wife, who had also filed for divorce.
Eisenberg's content, indeed smug, expression during a CNN interview shortly after holding up the campaign office struck me as the demeanor of a calculating con artist, a psychopath, not the demeanor of anyone who has truly been felled by mental illness.
That he had shaved his beard and trimmed his moustache so that he looked presentable for the cameras was a particular false note. When I had psychotic breaks in 1997 and 1999, I did not groom myself or shower for days. It would have been an impossibility for me to have given an interview to a news organization at that time.
However, I must admit that while Eisenberg and Nichols are likely psychopaths, there is a chance that both suffer from anti-social personality disorder, a form of mental illness often marked by lying and repeated disregard for the well-being of others. One of the differences between anti-social personality disorder and psychopathy, which is not considered a mental illness, is that those who are psychopathic plan their acts of violence against others, whereas those who have anti-social personality disorder do not premeditate such acts.
In either case, people like Eisenberg and Nichols perform a grave disservice to many law-abiding, non-violent people when they blame their atrocious behavior on mental illness.
They are not the only ones who perpetuate the stigma of psychosis.
Other offenders include celebrities, who, after breaking a law, allege that they have been diagnosed with manic-depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or some other disorder du jour. These diagnoses became fashionable in the past decade, and celebrities invariably tell us of their supposed disorders after they have smashed up a car, left a baby unattended, been arrested for drunk driving, or the like.
Who can forget Paris Hilton's media blitz upon her release from jail, where she served time for driving with a suspended license? First, she sought compensation for granting an interview. When that failed, she talked to Larry King, who asked her about the impression that she had skated through her jail sentence. She told him that, while behind bars, she had "overcome" various disorders she had had since childhood!
Though celebrities like Hilton are willing to blame depression and the diagnoses du jour for their bad behavior, they never claim to be "psychotic" or "schizophrenic." It is not difficult to understand why. Not only do they not suffer from these severe disorders, they also don't want to be associated with illnesses that scare people.
As I have noted before, the P word, "psychotic," simply means "divorced from reality." It does not mean violent. Yet people fear the very word. The same holds true for "schizophrenic," or "schizo," which for many people still conjures up images of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split personality. This is an antiquated notion that belies the wonder and inspiration of an Elyn Saks, a USC law professor, who has written about her schizophrenia and recently won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant.
Ironically, stigma also exists in the mentally ill community. An individual I interviewed, the father of a young man who took his life, rebuffed the possibility that his son could have suffered from a psychotic disorder. He insisted that his son was a manic-depressive, again a somewhat fashionable diagnosis, even though another family member said that lithium was not helping the young man, and even though he had delusions that the Holocaust might be happening again and that he would have to negotiate between the Allied powers to end it.
It was clear that the father did not want his son, deceased for many years now, tainted with a posthumous diagnosis of depression with psychotic features or schizophrenia.
As for me, I embrace those terms. I have mentioned previously that I was once diagnosed a schizophrenic and that I take anti-psychotic medication. It may be that without Abilify (and, before that, Perphenazine), I would still exhibit the symptoms of schizophrenia.
I have never been a threat to anyone but myself and will continue to write and talk about mental illness to help erase the stigma. The next time the subject of psychosis or schizophrenia arises, I can only hope that members of the media and public will think of people like Elyn Saks and me, not charlatans who drape themselves with the cloak of mental illness to conceal their bad behavior.