Mindless and Deadly - Media Hype on Mental Illness and Violence

Extra!, May/June 2001

By Phyllis Vine

Buried deep in a New York Times story (1/30/01) about the brutal murder of Dartmouth professors Susanne and Half Zantop, resides a common prejudice linking violence with mental illness. Speculating on the reason for the attack, the paper noted that Half Zantop "had once tried to help a mentally ill young man."

When two local youth were arrested--neither suffering from overt psychosis--the knee-jerk response seemed groundless. Yet the initial impression associating the crime with mental illness had already been molded.

When a Manhattan woman was assaulted with a brick by an unknown assailant, the New York Daily News (11/19/99) ran two-inch block letters across the front-page, demanding: "GET THE VIOLENT CRAZIES OFF OUR STREETS."

The New York Times (11/20/99) flayed the Daily News for its "throat-grabbing covers," but not for its erroneous assumptions. Daily News editor Brian Kates summarized the situation when he told a Times reporter that people assumed "the guy who did it was probably deranged. Obviously that remains to be seen."

When the eventual suspect turned out to be neither schizophrenic nor bi-polar, the pundits were hardly apologetic: "Drake turns out not to have been the insane box-dweller many thought an eventual brick-attack suspect would be," New York Post columnist Rod Dreher said (12/2/99). And some just kept hammering on the mentally ill; "Whatever Drake's mental condition might be, those loons on the loose who pose threats to the citizenry are still out there because of mental-illness policies that need to be revised," opined Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch (12/2/99).

Questionable causality

Despite the seemingly inextricable media link between mental illness and violence, scientific research has cast doubt on the causal connection. A three-year study, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (5/98), compared discharged mental patients with others in their communities. For those without an alcohol or other drug problem, no difference in violence was found, the authors wrote: "There was no significant difference between the prevalence of violence by patients without symptoms of substance abuse and the prevalence of violence by others living in the same neighborhoods who were also without symptoms of substance abuse." When there was violence, it "most often took place at home," not in the larger community.

Despite some coverage of this study (it appeared in the New York Times under the misleading headline, "Studies of Mental Illness Show Links to Violence"--5/15/98), an opposing image persists in the press. Helping to keep the myths alive is the mantra of "1,000 homicides a year" chanted by the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC).

TAC is a Beltway offshoot of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), an advocacy group consisting largely consumers of mental health services and their families. Its funding comes almost entirely from the Theodore and Veda Stanley Family Foundation. Since the late 1980s, the Stanley Family has spent more than $20 million for research into the causes of schizophrenia and bi-polar illnesses, as well as the benefits of unconventional drug therapies. But the Stanley Foundation is not known for its scientific achievements as much as it is for its most prominent spokesperson, psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey.

With degrees from Princeton and Stanford, a stint in the Peace Corps, publication of 16 books and an association with the Manhattan Institute, Torrey has been featured in magazine-length profiles (Lingua Franca, 1/01; New York Times Magazine, 2/22/98), and regularly places op-ed pieces in the nation's most influential papers.

As president of TAC, and executive director of Stanley Research, Torrey is a man with a mission: to force people with schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness into involuntary treatment. Once considered the patron saint of the family advocacy movement, his clamor for involuntary outpatient treatment in the last five years has dimmed his leadership and threatened the coherence of the movement he helped shape ( Mental Health Weekly, 2/19/01).

Torrey explains his obsession with forcing people into treatment--it even crept into testimony about homelessness before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services (3/5/97)--by discussing a unique category of "untreated" people with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders, a category he created that remains unrecognized in both government and academic research. These folks, he says, are responsible for 20 murders a week, 1,000 a year.

The magic number

Torrey's 1997 book Out of the Shadows explained that he extrapolated the 1,000 figure from six news stories about 13 homicides committed by mentally ill people in Washington, D.C., in 1992. On the TAC website (psychlaw.org), Torrey also cites 1988 data from the Department of Justice ("Murder in Families," 7/94), which reported 4.3 percent of all defendants in murder trials had a "history of mental illness." He turned this into 1,000 murders a year, he says, by rounding upward to account for unsolved and unreported murders. Despite the sharp decline in the murder rate over the last several years, Torrey continues to use the same estimate.

The National Stigma Clearinghouse, which monitors reports of mental illness and alleged violence, challenges TAC's message. According to a letter to the editor Clearinghouse director Jean Arnold wrote to Behavioral Healthcare Tomorrow (4/00), "Actual acts of violence by psychiatric survivors are few and far between. TAC embellishes each episode with bogus homicide numbers."

Others at TAC have acknowledged that the focus on the violence of the mentally ill is in part a cynical ploy to encourage funding for treatment. "People care about public safety," TAC publicist D.J. Jaffee told a workshop at the 1999 meetings of NAMI. "Once you understand that, it means that you have to take the debate out of the mental health arena and put it in the criminal justice/public safety arena." He had earlier advised a local New York advocacy group (SIAMI Newsletter, Vol. 9/12, 1994), "It may be necessary to capitalize on the fear of violence."

To accomplish this goal, TAC has devised a strategy to romance the press--producing material for soundbites, scenarios and statistics that can be used to pitch to the media. These efforts have borne results. Dan Rather led with "1,000 homicides" on a 48 Hours broadcast (4/12/00); Lesley Stahl included it on 60 Minutes (5/7/00). Judging by several dozen op-ed pieces on editorial pages in the last three years, TAC's tactics seem to work.

One gambit involves carefully timing op-ed pieces to appear after specific incidents involving a mentally ill person in a violent episode. After a mentally ill woman was killed by a police officer in California, allegedly in self-defense, several TAC op-eds appeared around the state, beginning with the Los Angeles Times (5/27/00). Later, while the state legislature debated legalizing forced treatment, two more appeared ( San Diego Union-Tribune, 2/16/00; San Francisco Chronicle, 7/6/00).

When the bill failed, Torrey and Mary T. Zdanowicz, TAC's president and executive director, wrote another L.A. Times op-ed (11/13/00), which concluded, "Perhaps next year, policymakers will come to understand that being psychotic can be deadly." This was a time-tested formula for them: The month before, a piece of theirs in the Orlando Sentinel (10/27/00) ended with, "When will Florida legislators realize that being psychotic is mindless and deadly?" And before that, in the Salt Lake City Tribune (4/16/00): "How many more preventable tragedies must Utahans bear before lawmakers realize that being psychotic is mindless and deadly?"

Part of TAC's successful strategy for linking mental illness with violence rests on a press corps that has welcomed stale soundbites used for political purposes. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich (7/29/98) wrote in the aftermath of one high-profile incident, "It's not only politicians who are complicit in this discrimination [against the mentally ill]. The media sometimes compound the ignorance that feeds it."

More on Disability.

Was this article helpful to you?

It was made possible by the subscribers to Extra!.

Please subscribe and support our work.