Advocates Send Letter to 60 Minutes: "Imminent Danger" Was Not About Our Community

NYAPRS Note: This week, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law drafted a letter to the Executive Producer of CBS 60 Minutes, in regards to the September 29 segment “Imminent Danger”. The views expressed in that program were regressive; the segment falsely portrayed persons with mental health diagnoses as hopeless, futureless individuals at high risk for committing violence. NYAPRS-as well as numerous other organizations indicated below—have signed this letter in protest of the unacceptable and misguided views expressed in the show that not only go against our mission, but also the consensus priorities of our mental health services system. Please read the full letter below.

Dear Mr. Fager:

The undersigned organizations, together representing tens of thousands of individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members, service providers, and advocates, write to express our great disappointment that CBS’ 60 Minutes chose to offer a dismal and inaccurate portrayal of individuals with psychiatric disabilities in the September 29, 2013, segment “Untreated Mental Illness an Imminent Danger?” We call on 60 Minutes to devote a future segment to presenting a different perspective than that offered by E. Fuller Torrey, the psychiatrist whose highly controversial views are featured in “Imminent Danger.”

“Imminent Danger” portrays individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia as people with hopeless futures whose primary life options are hospitalization, homelessness, or incarceration. The segment provides no indication that individuals with schizophrenia can and do live fulfilling lives, start their own families, work, live independently, and participate fully in their communities. Instead, such individuals are painted as consigned to a life of misery and as ticking time bombs with the potential to become violent at any time.

The segment perpetuates false assumptions that there is a significant link between mental health conditions and violence. Indeed, the point of the segment seems to be that mass shootings would be preventable if it were easier to hospitalize individuals with psychiatric disabilities. Apparently relying on Dr. Torrey’s inaccurate statement that half of mass killings are committed by individuals with serious mental illness, the report states: “It's becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that the majority of the people pulling the triggers have turned out to be severely mentally ill—not in control of their faculties—and not receiving treatment.” Research shows that this is far from accurate. One survey of mass shootings between 2009 and 2013 found that perpetrators had a known mental health condition in only 11 percent of these incidents.1 A recent study of the psychiatric characteristics of homicide defendants found that psychiatric factors do not appear to predict whether a homicide defendant used a firearm or killed multiple victims.2

“Imminent Danger” also inaccurately suggests that the primary need in our mental health system is for more involuntary hospitalization. In fact, we have a long history of national and state reports—including the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health in 1999 and the 2003 report of the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health—indicating that our mental health system is broken because we are failing to invest in effective community services (such as supported housing, supported employment, mobile crisis services, peer supports, and mobile community support teams).6 Dr. Torrey’s focus on hospitalization and forced treatment as the primary need in mental health systems is at odds with a virtual national consensus that the focus should be community services.

Finally, the segment incorrectly suggests that the requirement that individuals be dangerous before they can be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital is a significant barrier to treatment. Dr. Torrey states in the segment that due to this requirement, in most states, it is “almost impossible” to commit people. This is a gross misstatement of fact. In fact, more than 52,000 individuals were involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals last year. Moreover, the vast majority of individuals who come before courts on involuntary commitment petitions are committed.7

These inaccuracies and omissions in “Imminent Danger” create a harmful portrayal of Americans diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disabilities. This portrayal is likely to lead to further discrimination and scapegoating of these individuals and to suggest misguided policy solutions. Moreover, this segment misses the opportunity to highlight the need for greater investment in effective community services. We hope that 60 Minutes will devote a segment to presenting a different perspective and we stand ready to work with you on making that happen.

Sincerely,

American Association of People with Disabilities

American Association on Health and Disability

Anti-Bias Home Page/National Stigma Clearinghouse

Arbor Housing and Development

Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

Baltic Street AEH Inc.

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

Clubhouse of Suffolk

Community Access

Compeer Programs

Connecticut Legal Rights Project

Delaware Consumer Recovery Coalition

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Disability Rights International

Equip for Equality

Little People of America

Maine Center, Inc.

Mental Health America

Mental Health Association of Nebraska

Mental Health Association Orange County, Inc.

Mental Health Association Suffolk County

National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy

National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery

National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare

National Council on Independent Living

National Disability Rights Network

National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse

New York Association for Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, Inc.

Parsons Family and Consumer Services

Sacred Creations

Suffolk County United Veterans

Thresholds

Venture House

Witness Justice

Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health