We don’t know mental illness
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
It was definitely a juicy story, just made for a splashy headline: “Insane killer escapes,” or “Schizophrenic killer loose.” Phillip A. Paul, committed to Eastern State Hospital after a brutal murder, had gone on a field trip with other patients to the Spokane Interstate Fair. There he simply walked away, unnoticed by apparently uninterested supervisors. After a tense four-day manhunt, he surrendered 180 miles away in Goldendale.
This is a story any sensible news editor is going to play big. A psychotic man, a killer, running loose for days without his medication. He’s found coming out of the bushes near a small, seemingly defenseless town. He had a scythe in his backpack. I heard one editor ask if he had a hockey mask.
That was serious enough, and then the focus changed to the presumed inept supervision by the state. Why was this killer taken on field trips to the fair? Paul had been at the hospital, mostly, since 1987, after he slit the throat of an elderly woman in Sunnyside and set her body afire. He was acquitted by reason of insanity. He was hearing voices that commanded him to kill, and he was unable to tell right from wrong. After his most recent escape it was noted that Paul had escaped at least once before, that he once had been given conditional release, lived in downtown Spokane, attended community college, ran up huge credit card debts and fathered a child. Is this how the state’s institutions handle committed killers?
This was like hanging a jelly doughnut in front of the state’s editorial writers, who immediately switched to view-with-alarm mode. There was an obvious point: The state’s apparent incompetence had endangered the public it is charged to protect. Investigations were ordered. The Eastern State administrator resigned. Then politicians seized the opportunity, preparing to introduce bills to change the law on acquittal by reason of insanity. The insanity plea is a perennial controversy, always rising after a sensational case.
Then, there were a few small voices in the distance, making the point that most of us writing headlines about crazed killers don’t know much about mental illness, or how it is treated, or that there are a great many people suffering from mental illness who are no more violent than we are, and that even the “insane killer” can be treated and recover, and that all our misperceptions and prejudice publicly displayed can do harm to people who don’t deserve it.
“It really has a very negative impact. I was shocked, really,” said Jennifer Stuber, associate professor at the University of Washington who is studying the media’s depiction of mental illness. She had talked with recovering patients, trying to deal with a serious illness, and how they reacted to the Phillip Paul headlines. One said, “I have been in recovery for 15 years and all of a sudden I felt ashamed.”
Stuber was in Wenatchee to help with a seminar, for care-providers and responders, on mental illness and the media. She wrote about the Phillip Paul story, the stigma and the misperceptions, in an op-ed in The Seattle Times. She said that this was definitely a story to be covered, and that Paul had certainly committed a horrible act, but what most of us don’t know is that mental illness alone is not the source of violence. The vast majority of people diagnosed with serious mental illness are not violent at all. Criminal acts stem from numerous factors, often including substance abuse and family violence, not from mental illness alone. The research is clear. And yet we in the media define these people by their diagnosis, thus the “Schizophrenic killer” headlines. In the process we promote unreasonable fear of anyone suffering from this disease, those no more violent than any normal person, in recovery, trying to get along in a world where people are already suspicious and wary. And so people hide, they can’t find work, they don’t seek treatment.
It doesn’t change the fact that the Phillip Paul escape was news, and sensational, but Stuber makes a valid point, and it should be in the backs of our minds when we write headlines. What we don’t know can hurt.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.
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