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Media Coverage of Mental Illness Follows Familiar Line

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For all its merits, a recent front page story in the New York Times on the killing of a mental-health counselor by a schizophrenic illustrated once again that the press is more likely to publish or air a piece on mental illness that depicts tragedy rather than vindication, survival or triumph.

The piece, bearing the headline, "A Schizophrenic, a Slain Worker, Troubling Questions," offered a primer on the repercussions of deinstitutionalization and cost-cutting that have decimated mental-health budgets across this country, even in a liberal bastion like Massachusetts, where the murder occurred.

The writer, Deborah Sontag, took a balanced look at all of this. Never did she suggest that the mentally ill are prone to violence. In fact, she pointed out correctly that such violence rarely occurs though certain factors make it more likely -- such as substance abuse, failure to take medication and past violence.

As someone who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia and who has never been violent, I appreciated Sontag's thoughtful article, which more than anything else suggested that "the system had failed both the suspect and the victim."

Still, I wonder why it took the murder of Stephanie Moulton to warrant a front-page story on mental illness. Why couldn't the Times write a feature on someone who is coping well with severe mental illness, in spite of a family history of suicide, depression and psychosis?

The answer lies after the jump in Sontag's article: Mentally ill people wield "little political clout." Those of us who suffer from mental disorders recognize that we are rarely granted an ear from politicians because too much stigma remains. Many people still view the mentally ill as either violent criminals or as spiritually weak individuals who can't hold down a job and can't deal with the rigors of life.

That must be the reason why President Obama, for instance, has failed to write condolence letters to the families of troops who have committed suicide. As progressive and compassionate as Obama appears to be, even he, to this point, has seen no need to speak up on behalf of the mentally ill.

Yes, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy and the late Senator Edward Kennedy passed the parity bill several years ago, but sadly, Patrick Kennedy, in a recent interview with Sanjay Gupta on CNN, compared the brain injury of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to that of her would-be assassin, Jared Loughner, indicating that they both had experienced trauma to the cortex:

And now our attention is on Gabby [Giffords] and her recovery of her brain. And he [Jared Loughner] is being jailed for his brain, not being recovered. It is an irony but we think nothing of, no stigma toward Gabby and her brain injury, but he has a brain injury as well because clearly his brain was not working properly when he picked up that gun and shot all those people.

Setting back the cause of the mentally ill despite his legislative good deeds, Patrick Kennedy seemed to be making an excuse for those who premeditate murderous rampages. The vast majority of such crimes are not committed by the mentally ill, who are rarely violent. On the rare occasions when mentally ill people do get violent, it is almost never by design, as was the case with Loughner.

If leading news outlets are not publishing or airing stories about the mentally ill that feature murder, they are adhering to another storyline in the narrative of tragedy, the story of the mentally ill person who fights for his or her legal rights and then ends up dying homeless, penniless and alone.

A typical example of this occurred in a recent article in the New Yorker, titled "God Knows Where I Am." The piece, which delved into the issue of "lack of insight," revolved around a bipolar woman, who denied that she was mentally ill. Released from a New Hampshire hospital, she broke into a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and lived her last few months there without the knowledge of her family members, who were only informed of her whereabouts after she perished.

As was the case with the front-page article in the New York Times, Rachel Aviv's piece in the May 30 issue of the New Yorker discussed the failures of deinstitutionalization and cost-cutting. She indicated that $2.2 billion has been cut from state mental-health budgets in just the past three years.

But where the Times piece focused on how these cuts left a petite case worker all alone in a community housing facility with a violent man, Aviv's article focused more on the perils of allowing the mentally ill to have too many rights. As Aviv wrote, "Freedom often ends up looking a lot like abandonment."

I agree with much that was contained in these two articles. I just wish that the Times, the New Yorker, which once published a story on a writer who has succeeded in spite of his Asperger's diagnosis, and other publications would recognize that there are people who have tamed their mental illness and are leading productive lives. That may not sound as sexy as some stories but it is at least as true as the tragedies we read about so often.