Mental Illness Coverage Is Mixed

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How many times have we read about mental illness in connection with the Virginia Tech massacre, when Seung-hui Cho murdered 32 people on campus, before taking his own life?

A recent example occurred in the L.A. Times, in its story headlined "UCLA stabbing puts renewed focus on mental health." The article opened with a discussion of the Oct. 8 stabbing of a UCLA student, before linking it to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and, as the L.A. Times put it, "the mental health of troubled college students."

Damon Thompson, the alleged assailant in the UCLA stabbing, reportedly sent "paranoid and accusatory e-mails" to at least one professor. Even if one assumes that Thompson is mentally ill, one has to question why news outlets continually imply that Cho was.

To be fair to the L.A. Times, the reporter referred on several occasions to perpetrators of campus crime as "troubled" or "disturbed" students, rather than branding them as mentally ill or "psychotic," a word used incorrectly by many TV talking heads. As a further defense of the paper, Cho had reportedly been institutionalized in December of 2005 at Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital in Radford, Virginia.

But our nation's prisons for the criminally insane, let alone our psych wards, house many people who are simply violent, not mentally ill. Often, they are psychopaths, who plead insanity after committing atrocious acts; in the process, they damage the cause of those of us, who have grappled with psychosis yet have never been a threat to anyone but ourselves.

Cho is a classic example of a psychopath, not a psychotic, and as I have noted before, psychopathy is not considered a mental illness and is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Cho premeditated his murderous rampage and showed no remorse in his video, attributes that are never associated with psychosis, which means "divorced from reality." Those who suffer from psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, rarely become violent except when they misread a situation, a point I have made numerous times.

Yet the myth persists that Cho and others like him are mentally ill.

Clearly, professors at schools, like UCLA, have the right and obligation to notify university authorities of students who seem to be a danger to themselves or others. And papers, like the L.A. Times, have every right to analyze acts of campus violence in the greater context of the Virginia Tech massacre. But it would help matters if news outlets would point out, as I have, that Cho was almost assuredly not mentally ill.

While print coverage of mental illness tends to be less sensationalistic than TV coverage, it nonetheless favors a narrative of horror and loss, this in spite of the fact that there are dozens of examples of those who have overcome their mental illness. Unfortunately, their stories are rarely reported. Instead, most articles about the mentally ill take a tragic turn.

No one can fault the L.A. Times for recently running on the front-page a piece about Palo Alto's attempts to cope with the suicides of four teens. It is news after all when there seems to be a trend developing among the youth in Silicon Valley. On a positive note, the story led with the efforts of students to counter suicidal thoughts by posting life-affirming notes on the walls of Henry M. Gunn High School, which the four teens attended.

But the headline, "Rash of teen suicides stuns Palo Alto campus," once again reinforced my view that most stories on the mentally ill focus on tragedy. Furthermore, the photographs of a shrine and the railroad crossing, where the suicides occurred, could ironically romanticize suicide, one of the very points that experts warned against in the piece.

Another example of media coverage of mental illness fitting a paradigm of tragedy occurred a few weeks ago when the New York Times reported on the arrest of Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, who has been sentenced to death by a Chinese court. Shaikh has been accused of drug smuggling yet appears to have been duped into carrying a suitcase, filled with contraband, onto an airplane after being promised that he would become "a pop star."

To the N.Y. Times' credit, its article on Oct. 14 showed compassion for a man apparently swamped in delusion. It included a subhead in the body of the text, which read, "Conviction despite a defendant's history of mental illness." According to the piece, Shaikh believed that he was "a messiah" and wrote in an e-mail message, "I am the chosen one here to deliver world peace ... All I know is that Abraham has shown me my home in seventh heaven and I have met all the prophets."

In the past few years, Shaikh evidently left his London-based family, who say that he's bipolar, and moved to Poland, where he met a man who promised him a "record deal" in China. Reports suggest that this shadow figure handed him the suitcase at the last moment before Shaikh boarded the plane.

The inherently perilous nature of air travel may exacerbate the delusions of those who have a predisposition toward psychosis. In the pre-9/11 era, a friend of mine became convinced that there was a bomb on an airplane he was boarding. He warned the pilot, who seemed to recognize that my friend was undergoing a psychotic break. The pilot did not have my friend arrested. Rather, he and my friend's wife were able to reassure my friend that everything was okay.

I too have experienced delusions on an airplane. Though I have tamed my one-time diagnosis of schizophrenia, I did show psychotic symptoms earlier in the year when I was switching medication.

Following a traumatic experience in an Israeli Army boot camp, I feared that a belligerent man seated next to me on an airplane was a terrorist. He was carrying a bag filled with tools and had gotten into an argument with a stewardess.

Fortunately, I calmed myself down by speaking to this individual, an auto enthusiast, and finding out that he was married and had five cars. A married man with a car collection is not going to blow up a plane, I reasoned.

All of which is to say that the mentally ill do fly on airplanes and have the right to do so without being arrested. It is an outrage that the Chinese government has sentenced Shaikh to death. Only a rogue regime with no respect for human rights could engage in such lawless behavior.

I appreciate the thoughtful article on Shaikh, and I respect the fair-minded coverage of the UCLA stabbing and the suicides of the Palo Alto teens. I can only hope that the next time a shooting takes place, the reporting indicates that a remorseless individual who planned an attack is a psychopath, not mentally ill. And I yearn for the day when stories about psychotics deal just as often with recovery as tragedy.