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Some Very Bad Eggs Stigmatize Everyone

Another tragedy, another search for an explanation. And it always seems to start with "what flavor of crazy was he?

Maybe he was crazy, colloquially. I'll buy that. But just because someone does something we don't understand doesn't mean they're clinically diagnosable with a darn thing. Even when they do something as horrifying and bizarre as shoot innocent people. "Psychopathy and crime are not identical," writes Alv Dahl, although "a considerable proportion of [psychopaths], especially men, have committed crimes."

Sometimes it's a medical problem, like Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people and wounded 31 more at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. The autopsy he asked for in his suicide note revealed a cancerous brain tumor pressing against the amygdala -- a part of the brain that affects aggressive urges.

Here's what gets me, though. Even if the individual had mental health problems, why on earth would they want to seek treatment for them? Especially if they're bad -- someone might send them to the "nuthouse"!

Stick with me here for a minute. The media is incredibly stigmatizing in their description of people who have psychological disoders, and especially when they talk about psychiatric treatment wards. Britney was dragged off to the "looney bin," Uma's stalker "says no to the nuthouse." And even Northern Illinois University shooter Stephen Kazmierczak "stopped taking medication" before the shooting.

Not that anybody has deigned to tell us what that medication might be. I mean, was he taking antipsychotics or ibuprofen here? Regardless -- the implication is clear -- he must have been taking crazy people drugs.

Does that make you want to take those meds if your doctor suggests them? Of course not. You're not a crazy person

I was walking out of the local grocery store today when I saw a New York tabloid with a headline that screamed NUTS! And they weren't talking about cashews. No, it was a lurid story about how the "East Side Butcher...vicious[ly] hacke[ed] beloved psychologist" Kathryn Faughey to death. He was allegedly her patient, and she was a respected member of the American Psychological Association.

The subhead says "Crazy law bars cops from files on shrink's patients."

Ok, so one person flips out and all psychological files should be readily available to the police and, of course, the public? Only 20% of people seek care for psychological problems (and I'm talking about run-of-the mill depression and anxiety here [if you can ever call that kind of pain run-of-the-mill]) because they're terrified of the stigma.

Don't get me wrong. Those records need to be available to the police, and our ethics laws need some work. A similar murder in California went unsolved because the client records were sealed and kept out of the investigation. But the crazy headline bothers me.

So here's the real irony. This is important.

Most people who need psychiatric care don't get it because they're afraid of being stigmatized.

The news stories blaring about how crazy these people are are part of what's keeping the people who need it most from getting care.

The problem is not that there are these evil people skulking around in society under the mask of normalcy, plotting with cunning intelligence how to hurt others -- that's what psychologist and research Roy Baumeister calles "the myth of pure evil." No, people who have something wrong with them -- even something seriously wrong with them -- don't want to be treated badly anymore than you or I do. (There's a reason all these shooters kill themselves before they get caught.) So they don't seek help when they need it.

Well, most of them. Some do. But you know what? You need money to get decent mental health care, and usually you need a lot of it. Our social services in this country will run someone around in circles for months and even years before they can get the care they need. Getting medications people know they need (and even want) to take can be nearly impossible, between the red tape and the exorbitant cost of these medications. People get desperate. That by no means excuses their behavior, but it does put it in context.

Andrew Goldstein had schizophrenia and had repeatedly sought treatment from the social services available to him. He couldn't get the medication he needed, so when he pushed Kendra Webdale off a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train, he wasn't taking any. When asked by a reporter why he did it, he said, "You think I can get some help now? Because every time I go they say nothing's wrong with me and they let me go."

But they don't tell you that part in most of the news articles.

It's easier to believe Goldstein was pure evil, skulking along pretending to be normal. It's reached the point that some people believe that's what "schizophrenia" is. (It's not, it's a biological disorder that causes the brain to function incorrectly, often leading to strange behavior and perceptual experiences, like hallucinations. Most people with schizophrenia are not dangerous to other people.)

So what flavor of crazy was Stephen Kazmierczak? Only time will tell. But pay attention to the way the media writes about it and think for yourself -- how many people are going to decide to avoid treatment because they're afraid of being labeled crazy or sent to the nuthouse?


  1. Ripley said...
    Here, here! Great article. I must admit, I have so little faith in the public's ability to think for itself though. We'll see but I'm doubting this latest example will prove any different from those past.

    Unknown said...
    The New York Post...isn't that run by the Moonies? A cult that doesn't like the psychiatrist world?
    Ripley said...
    It doesn't really matter who prints the news. These papers are staring everyone in the face at the checkout stand so the message gets across.

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