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As CNN evacuated its newsroom and investigators launched a search for clues as to who may have mailed explosive devices to Hillary Clinton, George Soros, John Brennan and others, we should take time to reflect on the reality that one in five Americans struggle with mental illness.

There is no question that the political climate in the Trump era has become overheated. Political leaders few of us could imagine going out on such a precarious limb a few years ago are tacitly, if not explicitly, calling supporters to confront, if not mob, opponents. Fear that a tipping point is upon us has largely been downplayed and dismissed by mainstream media — that is, until pipe bombs bound for public figures made headlines Wednesday, October 24, 2018.

What is increasingly lost upon us in these troubled times is the reality that a percentage of Americans who are exposed to incendiary rhetoric on the part of pundits, politicians and social media may act upon it — to disastrous ends.

If mere words are indeed capable of setting off deadly consequences, the question must be asked why political discourse in this country is increasingly over the top?

Perhaps the recklessness with which pundits, politicians, social media users — and even journalists — feel entitled to speak owes some of its success to a modern-day taboo. Whether in the wake of a mass shooting or a bomb scare, underscoring a link between mental illness and violence is verboten.

“The American Psychological Association reports that only 7.5% of crimes are directly related to symptoms of mental illness. Poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, and homelessness are among the other reasons why people commit violent acts,” writes Amy Morin in “The 5 Most Common Misconceptions About Mental Illness”.

While it can and should be said that most people who suffer from a psychiatric problem do not commit violent crimes, the other way to frame the question is to ask what percentage of people who commit violent crimes suffer from a mental illness?

One in 25 Americans suffers from a serious mental disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health defines a serious mental illness as a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that limits one or more major life activities. In any given year, mental disorders afflict ~44 million adults of which  ~11 million battle severe illness.

Should even ~10 percent of ~11 million seriously ill people be at risk of crossing criminal lines, an estimated one million individuals may be triggered by personal, political, economic or social factors.

That possibility should give us pause.

Anti-stigma messaging has been a staple of mental health advocacy for years. After all, the vast majority of mental illness suffers hold down jobs and lead productive lives. Mental health advocates — for good reason — do not want to see the mentally ill suffer employment and housing discrimination, among other ills. This is not only understandable — it is a noble effort. There is, nonetheless, a flip side to every issue, which merits a broader discussion.

Substance abuse and homelessness correlate to poor mental health. A person with untreated mental illness may “self medicate”, hence they will present as an addict when, in fact, mental illness is a precipitating risk factor. Among the impoverished, similarly, a percentage may be unemployed thanks to the fact that mental illness is a leading cause of disability.

If, in fact, mental illness and criminal violence overlap, one might expect to see mental disorders over-represented among the incarcerated. However, with only a fraction of mental illness suffers in treatment, it follows that the rate at which prison populations suffer mental illness may be underestimated. As an example, frequently-cited estimates unwittingly imply prison populations, at a mental illness rate of ~20 percent, are no more likely to contend with mental illness than the general population. The reality, however, is that individuals who suffer psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are ten times more likely to be in jail or prison than a hospital bed.

Efforts to do away with stigmas about mental illness are laudable. But when people are led to believe by mental health advocates that mental illness is essentially a victim-less affliction — meaning they principally serve to harm the lives of sufferers — it may have the unintended consequence of causing fewer to seek treatment.

Perhaps the mental health community would be better served to help the public correlate untreated mental illness to the afflictions we tend, as a society, to compartmentalize: poverty, substance abuse, homelessness and incarceration.

As an example of why a broader and more cohesive advocacy effort is overdue, consider the homeless population — an astounding 58,000 in Los Angeles County, alone. Mounting frustration exists among California residents in the face of sprawling homeless encampments and the public health threats that go hand-in-hand with squalor. Protest demonstrations have arisen when public officials attempt to relocate the homeless to temporary shelters in the midst of suburban Orange County and beyond. From Los Angeles to Denver, crimes against the homeless are on the rise.

Prevailing wisdom among too many Americans holds that homelessness is the product of little more than character deficits such as laziness. This view, in turn, makes it possible to dehumanize the homeless. In the minds of too many, homeless people bring misfortune upon themselves because they are unmotivated and irresponsible. Public sentiment of this kind has allowed homeless individuals in California and elsewhere to not only to become criminal targets, but to proliferate in number thanks to a blind-eye mentality that undermines the will to craft and support effective public policy solutions.

What if we shifted public perception by more frankly characterizing homelessness as a risk linked to physical and mental disabilities?

The case can be made that mental health advocacy groups that de-emphasize the correlation between mental illness and crime, poverty, substance abuse and homelessness enable the public to minimize the devastating impacts of untreated mental illness in this country.

Though well-intended, anti-stigma messaging may have the paradoxical impact of enabling individuals with mental health challenges to struggle with their illnesses alone. This is, perhaps, most damaging to children — one in five of which are impacted by mental health challenges. Do we want parents to succumb to the powerful forces of denial — to assume that a “mood problem” has little bearing on a child’s risk of substance abuse, school dropout or delinquency?

Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that anti-stigma messaging may undermine the efforts of prison reformers, substance treatment organizations and homeless advocates to raise awareness about the interconnections between social ills. Failure to highlight these connections, in turn, may be a reason why taxpayer-funded support for efforts to treat these scourges as the health and disability issues they frequently are is lacking. Put another way, public policy objectives aimed at improving access to mental health services ultimately suffer when psychiatric disorders are portrayed in a manner that unwittingly divorces them from their wide-ranging, real-world impacts.

While stigmas are widely appreciated as an added burden on the mentally ill, far less appreciated are the unintended consequences of anti-stigma efforts. Decades of anti-stigma messaging appears to have played a supporting role in dulling our collective awareness of the risks that accompany unchecked hyperbole. Adults who once knew better than to pursue vendettas in the public sphere have not only lashed out on social media and cable news but have allowed their hostility to invade formerly unthinkable settings such as funerals, fundraisers and restaurants.

A coarsening of public discourse betrays a lack of awareness for how words and actions may influence unstable individuals to take an already divided-America to new lows. 

When celebrities, politicians, pundits and media gatekeepers pull out all the stops to perpetuate an accusatory, histrionic climate, they fail to appreciate that America — indeed the world! — is listening. Taboo or not, political protests, mass shootings in recent years and bomb threats must serve to remind us that not all who listen and watch the daily spectacle that is social media — and partisan politics at large — are of sound mind. That is why the rest of us must come to grips with our collective and individual responsibility to act the part of rational, reasonable and self-controlled adults.

The public figures Americans turn to to bring us news, entertainment and leadership must set an example of civility and class even if — and especially if!the man at the top hasn’t lived up to his obligation to do the same.

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Resources

Stigma and Violence: Isn’t it Time to Connect the Dots? | MPRC

Sometimes Mental-Illness Destigmatization can Backfire | The Cut

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In a move that has sparked controversy nationwide, Arizona state Senator Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, has successfully promoted a bill that requires state law enforcement, among related jurisdictions, to aid in federal immigration law enforcement. The state senator’s most outspoken critic, Roger Mahony, Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, writes on his blog:

I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation. Are children supposed to call 911 because one parent does not have proper papers? Are family members and neighbors now supposed to spy on one another, create total distrust across neighborhoods and communities, and report people because of suspicions based upon appearance?

Mahony’s words are provocative — arguably, even, a cheapening comparison to the horrors Communist and Nazi victims experienced. Yet they come on the heels of an audacious personal attack: The Los Angeles Times reports Sen. Pearce told syndicated radio talk show host Michael Smerconish “This guy has a history of protecting and moving predators around in order to avoid detection by the law. He has no room to talk [on the illegal immigration issue].”

Sen. Pearce may be well within the protections of the First Amendment, but he has far overstepped the bounds of responsible speech. Cardinal Mahony, however, has some confession of his own to do: Dredging up a very painful historic reality in contrast to a hypothetical and alarmist outcome.

It’s time for a time-out.

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American Competitiveness: The New Untouchables or The New Half Truth?

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

— Henry David Thoreau

In “The New Untouchables “, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that in this downwardly mobile economy there is no room for average. Extraordinary is what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern workplace.

I get that.

Yet for all my appreciation for education — I hold two degrees so I do, in fact, lean in favor of Friedman’s premise that education is key to American competitiveness — his education-as-a-panacea argument oversteps its reach.

Most strikingly, Friedman’s description of a successful “untouchable” American worker isn’t a portrait of educational endowment at all. Friedman’s favorite descriptors, instead, refer to personality attributes: entrepreneur (risk taker), creative (visionary), analytical (critical thinker), and persuasive (charismatic). The obvious problem with Friedman’s pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey premise is that temperament is inborn — teachers, let alone parents, cannot instill personality characteristics that are not there to begin with.

Friedman’s eagerness to finger the usual suspects — schools — also ignores six reasons why Americans are at a competitive disadvantage in the global era. Here we examine those realities, and the future these changing times have in store.

First, there are more of us occupying this country — and this planet at large — than ever before. At some point, the mathematics of population growth have to matter. The sheer number of people in today’s workforce suggests more and more people are competing for the same jobs even as we adopt more and more technology to displace human hands. That’s not a sign of a lack of education; it’s a sign that business owners comprehend that productivity gadgets and gizmos don’t require breaks, a salary or workers’ compensation.

It comes down to the numbers.

Second, I would argue the inverse in response to Friedman’s suggestion that there just isn’t enough talent to be had here in the States. Over the past 50-some years there are more colleges turning out more graduates on an annual basis than employers of the past had access to. Many foreign nationals, in fact, come to the US for higher education opportunities. On the flip side, there are only so many engineers, M.B.A.s, lawyers, scientists and the like universities can churn out before higher-end fields become saturated in much the same way low-end jobs are chalk full of contenders.

It’s no longer merely a question of whether there are clear winners and losers on the academic front.

Job scarcity is a threat, in part, because of the decades-long trend of mergers, acquisitions and a globalized labor pool. Consider: There are generally fewer than a dozen heavyweights in a given industry — everything from mainstream media to appliance manufacturing. This trend does not bode well for domestic job expansion. And if jobs aren’t available to begin with, it is tough to gain a competitive advantage even with above-average potential. So what we are seeing, in this author’s opinion, is an over-supply of talent.

But that doesn’t mean the proponents of Friedman’s dire self-fulfilling prophecy won’t get their wish.

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