TWIN FALLS • When James Sandlian first heard news outlets label the Newtown, Conn. shooter as “mentally ill,” his first instinct was to worry.
“I have a mental illness,” Sandlian said, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia close to 16 years ago. “Am I capable of this?
His second thought wasn’t any more encouraging.
“Something that horrific is scary,” he asked. “What are people going to think of me now?”
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults after invading an elementary school building. The tragedy sparked a national discussion among politicians and health officials about finding a way to provide more education and funding for mental health services.
However, some of those struggling with mental illnesses — along with those providing mental health services — are concerned about automatically labeling a shooter as “mentally ill.” Without a thorough medical diagnosis, it becomes easy to reinforce a negative stigma that the mentally ill are prone to violence, said Bill Aldrich, owner of the Community Support Center in Twin Falls, which provides services for people with mental disabilities, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression.
“There is a stigma, but everyone goes through different struggles,” he said. “It’s your actions that should determine who you are, not your illness. Most people with mental illnesses work every day to maintain a healthy and stable life.”
According to the American Psychological Association, Americans are twice as likely to believe mentally ill people tend to be violent than they were in 1950. Yet, in reality, the numbers point to the opposite. Most people with mental illness are more than twice as likely to be victims of violence when compared to the general public, APA reported.
It is still undetermined if Lanza experienced a psychotic breakdown, but in the meantime it’s imperative not to condemn those with mental illnesses, said Amy Bearben, chief nursing officer at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center.
Bearben said she works to encourage more mental health outreach in the community to help dispel myths about the mental disabilities.
“Nobody wants to be labeled as ‘crazy.’ Our goal is to reduce the stigma,” she said. “We want to let families and individuals know that there are services in our community.”
For Teresa Bennett, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and severe anxiety, watching how the public handles mental illnesses after a horrific event like a school shooting is difficult.
“People are just generally afraid,” she said. “There are mental illnesses that do go left untreated but it doesn’t have to be that way. Community outreach, community centers and education can help reduce the stigma.”
After going through multiple doctors and several medication trials, Sandlian is now in control of his mental illness. He takes his medications, visits his doctors and uses yoga as a stress reliever. Yet he still encounters people who look alarmed when he tells them he has a mental disorder.
“I can’t control what people think of me,” he said. “I can try to change my behavior, take my meds and continue taking care of myself. But I think it’s important to know there are plenty of murderers in prison without a mental illness. Yeah, if you don’t treat mental illness or try to ignore it, something may happen. But that’s not the case once you seek treatment.”