THE BLOG
02/09/2014 08:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2014

To Kiss or Not To Kiss Nicholas Kristof, Mental-Health Policy Wonk

Dick Cavett once said that "if Woody Allen is a child molester, I will publicly kiss Pat Buchanan."

May I add that, if Nicholas Kristof, who recently published a piece about mental illness on the front page of the Sunday Review of the New York Times, is an expert on the mentally ill, I will publicly kiss him.

There is no denying that Kristof is a dogged reporter. He has gone to nasty places around the globe to report on the abuse of women. I admire his yeoman work in shedding a light on the oppression of girls in Africa and elsewhere.

What I don't admire is his attempt to act like an instant expert on the subject of mental illness, to wade into a field of great complexity only to end up toeing the line of so many reporters who perpetuate clichés on this subject.

I don't doubt that Kristof is correct in stating that a significant percentage of people in jail and prison are mentally ill.

That may very well be true, although that was not my experience a decade or so ago when I visited the inmates at juvenile halls in Camarillo, San Francisco and Chino, Calif. Most of the young men, with whom I chatted at my talks, were in a penal facility because they had committed murder.

They had been in and around gangs, and they had feared that they would be killed if they didn't kill their enemies.

I also visited the inmates at Patton State Hospital, a prison for the criminally insane in San Bernardino, Calif., where I gave a talk a few years ago, so I am well aware that some prisoners have mental illness.

But Nicholas Kristof, like so many reporters who have written about this subject, would have us believe that the mentally ill simply cycle in and out of homelessness, incarceration and addiction. However well-intentioned Kristof may be, his piece sadly adds to stigma by reinforcing the notion that the mentally ill are criminals or failures who can't hold down a job.

Kristof cited a statistic, indicating that "some 40 percent" of those with a serious mental illness have been arrested "at some point in their lives."

While Kristof noted several studies in his piece, he provided no study to back up that particular statistic.

That was probably an error of omission. However, even if that statistic can be substantiated by a study, someone with a deeper understanding of mental illness could tell you that the mentally ill sometimes get arrested by police without having committed any crime at all.

Consider this: In January 1999, when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and flooded with delusions that I would be assassinated, I fled my then-girlfriend Barbara's home in Glendale, Calif., and went off on a harrowing trek across L.A. After I bolted out of her home, Barbara, who is now my wife, called my psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, and asked him what they should do.

Dr. McGrail sighed and said, "We'll have to have him picked up by the police."

As it turned out, after venturing on foot from Glendale to Westwood over a six-hour period, I made it to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute later that day. I did so on my own. But had I not shown up at the psych ward that day, I would likely have been "picked up by the police."

Nicholas Kristof might think that I am supporting his argument that most of the mentally ill who go to jail or are arrested by the police have committed nonviolent crimes. But that would not have been the case with me. I would have been arrested but not for committing a nonviolent crime. I would have been arrested for committing no crime at all.

To this day, psychiatrists not infrequently call the police to have them search for patients who have gone missing, who are lost on the street, often in a fog of delusion and terror.

It is understandable that psychiatrists do so. Who else, other than the police, has the resources to search for a mentally ill man or woman on the streets?

If those consumers are indeed picked up by the police, they may qualify as having been arrested.

Which is to say that Kristof's "some 40 percent" statistic is almost assuredly a distortion in that those with a serious mental illness sometimes get arrested not only for the nonviolent crimes Kristof mentioned, but also for no crimes at all.

If I can use a Kristofian modifier, I would estimate that "some 90%" of the seriously mentally ill whom I have met have never been arrested and have never committed any crime, violent or otherwise.

I am speaking not only of my family members, such as my grandfather and two cousins, all three of whom committed suicide. I am speaking of all the people I have met over the years at places like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), where I have been not only a pupil but also a speaker at events in L.A. and the Bay Area.

As I pointed out last year in my piece, "Stop Recycling Clichés about the Mentally Ill," the vast majority of those with a serious mental illness blend in to society. You would not know that they have a mental disorder at all.

Shortly after I wrote that piece last year, the N.Y. Times followed with op-eds by Melody Moezzi, a lawyer with bipolar disorder, and Juliann Garey, a novelist with bipolar disorder. I profiled Garey in early 2013, months before she wrote her Times op-ed.

While Moezzi and Garey made different points in their columns, both writers indicated that they had essentially blended in for years and been perceived as "normal," not mentally ill. In revealing this, those two writers supported a point I have been making for years since I wrote a 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times: that there are a lot of people like us out there, people who have done well in the work force in spite of serious mental illness, people who have never been violent, and people who have never gotten into trouble with the law.

I wrote a follow-up column last year, after the N.Y. Times published those op-eds by Moezzi and Garey. In that follow-up column, titled "Profiles in Courage of the Mentally Ill," I mentioned that when I took "Peer to Peer," a NAMI class taught by and for people with a diagnosis, only one person out of roughly 25 said that he or she had ever committed a crime, which was arson in the case of my colleague.

I can't claim that all the people in that class were telling the truth about their history with law enforcement.

But I am telling the truth when I say that Kristof overreached in his op-ed.

He and other reporters like him may think that they are helping the cause of the mentally ill. But if you were to ask most people with serious mental illness if they think it is accurate to depict them as jailbirds, they would tell you that what they seek is a world without stigma, a world where they don't have to fear losing their jobs or their lovers because of any perceived association with criminals.

I think that Nicholas Kristof owes me a kiss.