[Originally published in The Gainesville Sun and reposted here with author’s permission.]
In our nation’s history, in the face of fear, we have often risen to achieve noble goals. Other times we have behaved tragically — for instance, interning and seizing property from Japanese Americans during World War II. Certainly, there were spies among us then. Only in hindsight did we recognize that our treatment of the larger group — who were not — was gravely mistaken.
We are on the verge of witnessing such an event in our own time. We are now experiencing an understandable collective desire for action in the wake of horrifying mass killings, many in our public schools. In response, we see federal legislation gaining momentum (e.g. H.R. 2646, unfortunately known as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act). This bill threatens individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness with an increased loss of civil rights — and a terror that too many others do not understand.
Dr. Renée Binder, president of the American Psychiatric Association, has written, “As research shows, the overwhelming majority of individuals [diagnosed] with mental illness will never be violent toward others.”
As Dr. Larry Davidson, director of Yale Medical School’s recovery program has also written, the impact of the ongoing fear-driven public image regarding violence is “extremely hurtful to tens of millions of Americans who are working hard at their recovery.“
So much essential evidence — deeply relevant to the legislation at hand — has been left out of the public discourse. If included, this evidence would allow us to see, together, the tragedy we are on the verge of enacting. This includes the voices of so many individuals like myself, who have recovered from or are in-recovery from experiences diagnosed as serious mental illness.
This includes significant empirical evidence, much of it published in mainstream mental health sources, including psychiatry’s preeminent journals. This evidence contradicts the overly simplistic assumptions underlying HR 2646 — assumptions about diagnosis, medication, recovery and the role of trauma.
For example, Larry Davidson and Dr. David Roe have documented what too many legislators, members of the public — and even professionals and family members of those who are still struggling — are not aware. Rigorous long-term studies demonstrate between one-quarter and two-thirds of those diagnosed with a serious mental illness recover to “resume personal, social, and vocational activities within what is considered a normal range.”
Davidson and Roe also described being “in recovery” as the process of “overcoming the effects of being a mental patient — including poverty, substandard housing, isolation, unemployment, loss of valued social roles and identity, loss of sense of self and purpose in life, and iatrogenic effects of involuntary treatment and hospitalization — in order to retain or resume some degree of control over their own lives.”
Yes, the mental health care system needs significant rebuilding — including our responses to individuals in crisis — but these changes need to be made with a view of the larger picture, including the documented realities of mental health recovery. (For a more nuanced introduction to the evidence than this space allows — including my own recovery story — please see slides 18-53 from my 2015 American Association of Suicidology Conference powerpoint at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jim_Probert/publications)
The current legislation not only targets so many individuals who will never be violent. It also threatens to end those programs which already exist — which are moving us toward a more genuinely trauma-informed and recovery-oriented approach to overwhelming emotional distress.
— Jim Probert is a psychologist/clinical assistant professor at the University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center.