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In some of the comments about the tragic shooting at Northern Illinois University, I sense an underlying fear that all people with mental illnesses are just one bad week, one missed medication or one bizarre tattoo away from becoming homicidal psychopaths.
The truth is that there is a very strong link between people with mental illnesses and violence -- just not the way it generally is portrayed.
"The notion that mentally ill people are dangerous, I think, is a dangerous notion," says Mitch Bruski, chief executive officer of the Kenneth Young Center, an Elk Grove Village-based provider of mental health and senior citizens' support services. "They actually statistically are much more likely to be hurt than to hurt other people."
A 2005 study by researchers at Northwestern University found that more than one-fourth of people with severe mental illnesses are the victims of violent crime each year. People with mental illness were 23 times more likely to be raped, 15 times more likely to be assaulted, eight times more likely to be robbed and were the victims of theft 140 times more often than those in the general population.
Slayings committed by people who may suffer from mental illnesses certainly grab our attention. But a study published in The Lancet British medical journal said that mentally ill patients are six times more likely to be murdered than are people in the general population.
"People with mental illnesses are more vulnerable," explains Danise Habun, executive director of the Hanover Township Mental Health Board, which has its office in Bartlett.
"I know the stereotypes," Habun says, describing how society can "vilify these people as monsters." But the reality she sees more often reflects an opposite image.
"The mentally ill young woman who was sexually assaulted and tricked and raped -- that kind of violence happens against the mentally ill pretty frequently, and we don't read about them," Habun says.
Of course, most of the 62.5 million Americans (one in five people) who experience some form of mental disorder each year manage to live "normal" lives without becoming either victims or criminals.
Even among the people with mental illnesses who do commit violent crimes, other factors -- especially substance abuse -- play a role.
One article in The New England Journal of Medicine notes that people with no mental disorders are seven times more likely to commit violent crimes if they abuse alcohol or drugs. Mentally ill people fall prey to those same problems, and often have the added burdens of homelessness, unemployment, financial woes and the stigma (and sometimes teasing and abuse) that unfortunately accompanies mental illness.
One obstacle is "the lack of investment we put in our mental health system -- putting them on the road of having to lose everything before they can get any treatment sometimes, or good treatment," says Carol Wozniewski, executive director of Mental Health America of Illinois. "We have a long way to go to bring mental health care up to par with all other health care. We need to be investing more in our mental health services."
While the NIU shooting has led to discussions about mental health, guns, security, mood medications and other issues, there are no easy and quick answers -- just this simple advice that can help everybody's mental state.
"We have to treat each other kindly, and treat ourselves kindly," Habun says. "That's what I've been telling people this week."