American fashion designer Kenneth Cole recently posted a billboard prominently over Manhattan’s West Side Highway that reads, “Over 40M Americans suffer from mental illness. Some can access care … All can access guns.” The hashtags #GunReform and #AreYouPuttingUsOn were also included on the billboard.
Once again, an uneducated celebrity has used his influence to further stigmatize those with mental illness.
I fully expect him to be jumping on Oprah’s couch next week advising the public that if they embraced Scientology or possessed a pair of running shoes, there would be no need for psychiatric care.
American Psychiatric Association President Renee Binder, MD, made a public statement about the billboard, saying it unfairly linked mental illness with gun violence and the need for gun control. “It provides the gross misimpression that people with mental illness are violent,” Dr. Binder says. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and most acts of violence are not committed by people with mental illness.”
But it’s difficult to ask Cole to revise his thinking when most Americans are right there with him. As psychology journalist Maria Konnikova explains in this New Yorker piece, the overwhelming majority of us still feel that most violent behavior is connected to mental illness. Konnikova writes:
As recently as 2013, almost 46 percent of respondents to a national survey said that people with mental illness were more dangerous than other people. According to two recent Gallup polls, from 2011 and 2013, more people believe that mass shootings result from a failure of the mental-health system than from easy access to guns. Eighty percent of the population believes that mental illness is at least partially to blame for such incidents.
If I’m paying attention, I hear about one inaccurate statement a day regarding violence and mental illness. Recently, after I wrote a post about the mistakes I made tapering off an antidepressant, I heard from a woman who was alarmed that I would discuss weaning off drugs, and therefore cause folks to do things like “shoot 20 people.”
As I said in another post, I’m DEPRESSED, not DANGEROUS.
There is a very definite difference.
Konnikova highlights the research of Jeffrey Swanson, PhD, a medical sociologist and professor of psychiatry at Duke University. About 25 years ago, he analyzed 10,000 individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of a year and found that, in only 4 PERCENT of violence cases, was the violence attributed to serious mental illness. Alcohol or drug abuse, and economic status, were much larger risk factors. Twelve years later, Dr. Swanson repeated his study, following 800 people in four states who were being treated for either psychosis or a major mood disorder. Thirteen percent of those people committed a violent act that year. But, as Konnikova explains, the other factors — namely unemployment, economic status, and drug and alcohol abuse — played a much bigger role. When you take awaythose factors, the risk for violence fell to a whopping 2 PERCENT. That is, THE SAME RISK AS FOUND IN THE GENERAL PUBLIC.
Swanson’s results are compatible with other studies that Konnikova cites. She writes:
A subsequent study of over 1,000 discharged psychiatric inpatients, known as the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study, found that, a year after their release, patients were only more likely than the average person to be violent if they were also abusing alcohol or drugs. Absent substance abuse, they were no more likely to act violently than were a set of randomly selected neighbors. Two years ago, an analysis of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (which contained data on more than 32,000 individuals) found that just under 3 percent of people suffering from severe mental illness had acted violently in the last year, as compared to just under 1 percent of the general population. Those who also abused alcohol or drugs were at an elevated 10 percent risk.
Kenneth Cole is a talented designer. I’ll give him that. But I think he could do more for those with mood disorders by showing them pretty pictures of boots and purses on his billboards than messages that suggest depressed people are to blame for the violence in this world.
We read that memo enough as it is.