Health & Wellness: Fed Up
● By Aimee Cormier
Erasing The Stigma Of Mental Health
By Amanda Jean Harris
Pat Mould is kind of fed up and he isn’t alone. As another shooting tragedy unfolded in late July, Mould, and others like him, saw what has plagued the nation play out in our own backyard.
“It’s the same story told over and over,” the chef and advocate for mental health says. “There are some dots that need to be connected when it comes to mental health and gun control and we’re missing an opportunity to get guns out of the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.” Mould is quick to note he’s not trying to take away anyone’s guns. The hunter says, however, it’s time to start the discussion about what can be done.
It feels, at times, a complicated and hopeless problem. Mental health and guns. Mental health and violence. Erasing the stigma of mental disease while also protecting people. The balance of privacy and safety.
The discussion has been happening throughout the nation for months. And now it’s come to Acadiana. Professionals like Lisa Strauss, LCSW, BC-D, welcome it. She is a licensed clinical social worker who counsels people and says there are two broad areas that come to the forefront when looking for those that may commit a violent crime: Lack of empathy and sense of entitlement.
While the age-old view that those who are dangerous show signs like torturing animals or other very clear signs of cruel behavior is no less valid, Strauss notes more subtle signs that are very important in painting a picture of mental health must be taken seriously.
“It’s a warning sign when someone has no empathy. That’s something to pay attention to and if they have a sense of entitlement, it’s dangerous.” She says this combo alone is not a predictor of violent behavior, but those without the empathy of how others feel combined with entitlement can create an attitude as though someone has permission to take a life and then not care that they did so.
The good new, Strauss is quick to point out, is that there is always hope. “The key is getting help,” she says. In her own practice she uses pet therapy, which can be particularly helpful for certain patients in creating empathy. Therapist Kandy Collins with the Lafayette General Behavioral Health Clinic says research shows those receiving effective treatment for mental illness are no more violent or dangerous that the rest of the population.
“One of the most important steps in preventing violence by people with a known mental illness is to make sure those individuals are receiving the most effective treatment as early as possible and for as long as they need it,” Collins says. “It is important to note that mental healthcare alone will not prevent acts of violence. Most acts of violence are committed by individuals who do not have a mental illness.”
She says a history of violent or assaultive behavior is a better predictor of future violence compared to a mental health diagnosis. “Rather than thinking of people with a severe mental illness as generally violent and dangerous, other factors should be considered,” Collins says pointing to substance abuse coupled with mental illness and social factors along with community factors and past experiences.
In the wake of the Grand Theatre shooting in Lafayette that left three dead (including the Georgia gunman) opened the discussion about mental health after it was discovered the man had prior mental health issues. Collins says public perception that random violence is on the rise and those with mental disorders are especially violence-prone is not quite accurate.
“It is important for everyone in the community to understand that mental illness is not a choice, while at the same time understanding that violence is always unacceptable,” Collins says. “Society in general has stereotyped views about mental illness and how it affects people. Many people believe that people with a mental illness are violent and dangerous people.”
The stigma around mental health may be perhaps the greatest barrier to improving those who suffer the most and their support systems. “There are places to get help and if we can identify the problem and form a treatment plan there is hope,” Strauss says.
While the Grand Theatre shooting and other national stories of violence that point toward a singular mentally ill person as the perpetrator tend to spark healthy debate, it can also be the very kind of discussion that causes some to shy away from seeking help.
“Stigma discourages people from getting help, despite advances in education and research,” Collins says. “Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who have a mental health condition are still common. Stigma and discrimination can worsen someone’s mental health problems, delay or impeded getting help and treatment.”
At Acadiana Area Human Services District, mental health professionals are hoping to change that stigma or any barrier to mental wellness. “There’s no shame in getting help,” says AAHS marketing rep Natalie Theriot. “It’s just like any other issue. If you want to get better, you have to get treated. There should be no shame in getting treated for mental illness, addiction or disorder.”
Strauss echoes the sentiment comparing the mind to any other part of the body. People are far less likely to say they don’t want to take a pill for a heart condition or diabetes, but those with mental illness may insist medication is not necessary when it is because of prevailing stigma. “We’re still working on the stigma of people not wanting to take medication. They’ll say it makes them weak or bad. They aren’t choosing to be bipolar.”
For Mould, who wants to remove that stigma as well, he says it all starts with talking about it. He also works on fundraising for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in the hope of making a difference. “I’m not sure what the answers are,” he says. “My whole point is to open up a dialogue. It’s not about Second Amendment Rights. I like to hunt and this is not about gun owner’s rights. It’s about being able to identify people with mental health issues and getting them the help they need.”
As mental healthcare professionals, advocates and those facing mental illness and their families grapple with the answers — along with the rest of the population, Mould hopes that from tragedy will come a way to do things better. “You have to protect my second amendment rights, but without fear of being shot at the movies,” he says “What can we do to help the mentally ill and not just ignore it? It’s such a divisive issue and some people aren’t open to the conversation.”