Jack Bragen
Thursday September 25, 2014 - 09:35:00 AM

Some people in the general public do not have much understanding of mental illness. Certain people may have negative opinions about mentally ill persons which are based on ignorance, and other people may be open-minded but lack much information. 

Part of the mission of this column is to inform. However, my column is mostly an opinion column. I don’t know a lot about mental illness from a clinician’s perspective. There are plenty of other writers who can furnish that perspective. 

Unlike authors who base their mental health writings on the work of clinicians, I am informed as to what it is like to live with a psychiatric disorder. And, over the past thirty two years, I have gained a great deal of information about how many mentally ill people live, and sometimes, how we die. 

Mental illness, from my perspective, completely rearranges life. Some are able to remain closeted, to earn a living, and to keep their illness private. Others who need more help are often forced to live within the bounds of the mental health treatment system. 

It is not highly unusual for a person with mental illness to have a short lifespan. Over the years, I have seen a lot of mentally ill people pass away in their forties and sometimes younger. There are often a lot of medical complications to taking medication. Also, the illness makes it harder for us to take proper care of ourselves. Thirdly, suicide is a widespread risk that goes with mental illness. 

I have a limited understanding of what I’ve looked like to other people when I’ve had acute symptoms. I have seen the behavior of other persons with mental illness, and it is so familiar to me that it is hard for me to describe—I am probably overlooking a number of obvious things. 

I do know that people call us crazy and that some people across the board hate us. 

The behavior of an acutely psychotic person, clearly, does not make sense. Many people in the general public don’t understand that we are human beings suffering from a disease. We might appear to be dangerous as well as perplexing. Some people are afraid of us. 

Is there anything to fear? On occasion, yes. Persons with mental illness are sometimes violent. But usually we are not. When someone is having a psychotic episode, care must be taken, not only to prevent innocent people from being harmed, but also to prevent harm to the person with the illness, someone who is also essentially an innocent person. 

When dealing with criminals, there is much more to worry about than when dealing with someone who is mentally ill. Criminals in some instances sincerely intend to hurt people, and they do not always have a conscience. If someone with mental illness, while acutely ill, inadvertently harms someone, they may have years of regret afterward. It's apples and oranges. 

I have seen people being 5150'd by police. I, myself, have been in the position of being 5150'd. It can be a frightening thing to have two or more officers overpower you with force—sometimes with more force than is needed. 

In our system, mental illness is criminalized. By this, I mean that society's interface with mentally ill people is through the criminal justice system. This is not optimal for helping people who are suffering from a disease. It can make us afraid to seek help when we need it. Merely being mentally ill without a specific criminal act is not a crime and should not be dealt with as one.