Thursday, September 13, 2012

Letter to the Editor

In the town where I live, on September 4, 2012, a Highway Patrolman, Kenyon Headstrom, was shot by a man named Chris Lacy. Headstrom later died of his wounds. Lacy died at the scene. It has since come out that Lacy was Bipolar, and local papers have treated this story as if  Bipolar Disorder made Lacy automatically violent; as if the shooting were inevitable because of his condition. This is my letter to the editor about the stigma engendered by that terrible event.

I am one of the mentally ill of Contra Costa county, and I am saddened by reporting that seems to assume that Chris Lacy killed that brave officer because Lacy was bipolar.  Yes, he killed. Yes, he was Bipolar. But the two descriptives aren’t automatically connected. People only hear about us when we kill somebody. This is the image the public has of mental illness, and it scares everybody without helping a thing. It adds terror and stigma to a tragedy that is surely bad enough already!

I have been bipolar for forty years; I own a gun for self-defense; I even have the bad temper that goes with my red hair. But I have never slapped or hit or shot anybody.  I write books that help others with their mental health. I sometimes speak in public for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, in their anti-stigma program, “In Our Own Voice.” This is how I contribute to society.

 Here’s what most people don’t know: the average percentage of violence among the mentally ill is lower than the average percentage of violence among the total population. For years I supported myself by reading to the blind; I read that statistic in the standard study guides that my mentor, Dr David Kallinger (clinical psychologist) used for oral exams he took before obtaining his PhD. This is not obscure information: it is available to every clinician getting ready to obtain his license. Dangerous criminals among the abnormal are the exception rather than the rule (Corrigan & Watson, 2005). Most of us turn our violence against ourselves, not against others.

But it doesn’t fit the public paradigms. If a person does something that awful, they MUST be crazy, right? Crazy is the only explanation, isn’t it? The frightening truth is that most violent crime is committed by individuals who have no mental illness. They are reasoning, ‘sane’ individuals who think this course of action makes sense.

That statistic wouldn’t sell any papers, though. So you won’t hear about it. As a psychology teacher of mine used to say, “Mental Patient Lives Quietly, Dies Peacefully” just doesn’t work as a headline.

It is true that some mentally ill individuals commit terrible crimes. We have seen two examples just recently. I cannot say how sad they make me. But there are terrible, violent, tragic crimes EVERY day, and most of them are committed by “normal” individuals. It is not sensible to think that anyone with a mental illness is automatically dangerous, and it simply is not borne out by experience or statistics.

When we think like this, we are assuming the worst of human nature. We are assuming that when  brain wiring goes wrong, its first order of business is to attack others. And that is just incorrect. Most of us are just trying to get through another day, and get the care we need from a reluctant mental health system. What society can do to stop crimes like this is stop being afraid and concentrate instead on making sure health systems are responsive, giving thorough and prompt help, instead of abandoning people to stew in their own juices, locked in the prison of their minds with no way out.

Deborah is a public speaker and the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness. She is currently recording it as an audiobook and CD set.  Deborah has also published two novels. Her books are available at, Kindle Editions, iBookstore, and other major vendors; or you can order them from your local bookstore. Visit her web page at, or see her catalog at She has also narrated a guided meditation CD with her husband, musician Robert Hamaker. Check out sound samples at