After the recent shooting rampage in Manchester, Conn., in which Omar S. Thornton killed eight people at Hartford Distributors, his place of work, before turning a gun on himself, one might have expected the mainstream media to speculate about the mental health of the gunman. That would have been a typical news angle in past years.
Fortunately, in what I take to be a sign of the progress we are making in this country in educating the public about mental illness, none of the leading news outlets pursued such a tack. The New York Times made no reference to mental health in its front-page story, nor in its sidebars inside the paper. CNN's Anderson Cooper played the 911 telephone call but did not provide any commentary on it, other than to relate that Thornton had reportedly been caught stealing beer from his employer, a beer distributorship, and that he had alleged racial harassment in the workplace.
It was apparent to just about everyone that the killer, like most killers, was not mentally ill at all. He was a disgruntled employee with work-related and financial woes; he had been fired or forced to resign earlier on the day of the shooting, and he had declared bankruptcy some years before.
It bears repeating that the mentally ill with no substance-abuse problems commit only 3 to 4% of violent crime in this country, as studies have shown.
Still, there are some who continue, at least on occasion, to indict the mentally ill when a violent crime occurs.
A week or so ago, Larry King broached the possibility that all stalkers are mentally ill. While airing ESPN reporter Erin Andrews' testimony on Capitol Hill on behalf of anti-stalker legislation, King said to a Los Angeles County assistant D.A., a panelist on Larry King Live, "Couldn't you make the case that every stalker is a mental patient?"
What was so sad to me about this question, which was both leading and misleading, was that it came from King, a man who has devoted numerous shows to the subject of depression. One would have thought that he in particular would have been aware of the distortions and misperceptions out there regarding mental illness. Yet he fed into all the old stereotypes by implying a one-to-one relationship between stalking and mental illness.
For the record, no one has suggested that Erin Andrews' stalker, who is now serving time in federal prison, is mentally ill, though some mentally ill people do, in fact, stalk.
A few years ago, I encountered a couple of them at Patton State Hospital, a prison for the criminally insane in Southern California. When I gave a talk to the prisoners, I asked those in the front row what crimes they had committed, and two mentioned stalking.
I then stated that violence is not an option. Those in the front row looked a bit chagrined, but they recognized the validity of what I said.
While there are clearly violent felons who are mentally ill, most of us who suffer from severe psychiatric disorders are never a threat to anyone but ourselves.
As I have written before, in 1999, during my second psychotic break, I believed among other delusions that I was going to be assassinated, that I would be blamed for a series of nefarious crimes across the country, and that even my cat had been trained by the CIA. My girlfriend Barbara, who is now my wife, tried to prevent me from fleeing her apartment. She grabbed my arms and had such adrenaline, was so strong, that I thought she too was a CIA plant.
When she held on to me, I never struck her, never shoved her, never hurt her at all. I just pulled away from her and exited the apartment. Nor was I violent at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, where my psychiatrist checked me in involuntarily later that day. I was diagnosed a schizophrenic and received a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) score of 20, a very low rating that evidenced just how psychotic and non-functional I was at the time.
More than a decade removed from that episode, I function at a much higher level and take pleasure in noting that society is growing more tolerant of the mentally ill. Even Ron Artest, the former NBA bad boy who got into a brawl years ago in Detroit but came back to help the L.A. Lakers win a championship in June, thanked his psychiatrist after Los Angeles defeated Boston in the finals.
We've come a long way since 1988, when the Lee Atwater machine spread the false rumor that Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president, had seen a psychiatrist. Though Dukakis denied it, then-President Reagan quipped that he wouldn't want to pick on an "invalid."
All these years later, it is not Woody Allen alone who talks publicly about seeing an analyst. Many of us do, and none of us should feel like an invalid or a criminal.