Mental Health Weekly Highlights Bazelon, Community Response to 60 Minutes

Mental health groups urge CBS to air ‘balanced’ view of mental illness
Mental Health Weekly; October 14, 2013; Volume 23 Number 39

Following  a segment  on  mental  illness   and   violence   that   aired   last month  on  CBS’s 60 Minutes,  nearly 40 mental health, disability and consumer organizations, expressing  disappointment and  concerns  over the show’s   implied   link   between  the two, sent a letter Oct. 8 to the show’s executive    producer   requesting    a more    balanced    view   on   people with  serious  mental  illness  and  an emphasis  on recovery.

The segment, “Untreated Mental Illness an Imminent  Danger?” painted     individuals     diagnosed    with schizophrenia    as    “ticking     time bombs  with the potential  to become  violent   at  any  time”  and  “people with hopeless futures whose  primary  life  options   are  hospitalization, homelessness, or incarceration,”  according  to the letter from 36 organizations  addressed to  Jeffrey  Fager, CBS News chairman  and 60 Minutes executive  producer.

The organizations, including  the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery, Disability Rights Education and  Defense  Fund, New York Association  for Psychiatric  Rehabilitation Services, Inc., and  National  Council for  Community   Behavioral   Healthcare,  wrote  that  these  inaccuracies  and omissions in “Imminent Danger” create  a harmful portrayal  of Americans  diagnosed with  schizophrenia and other psychiatric disabilities.

The   organizations    took   issue with some  of the comments  from E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., a research  psychiatrist  and  founder   of  the  Treatment  Advocacy  Center,  and  one  of the  participants   in  the  60  Minutes segment.

“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,”   they   wrote. “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.”

“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,” the letter stated.

“Dr.  Torrey   makes   inaccurate  statements  that ignore effective solutions and stigmatize individuals with mental  health   conditions,”  Jennifer Mathis, director  of programs  for the Judge   David   Bazelon   Center   for Mental Health  Law, told  MHW. “He wrongly  states  that individuals  with serious  mental  illness  are  responsible  for  half of mass  shootings,  and claims   that   lowering    involuntary commitment  standards   would   pre- vent such shootings.” Mathis added,  “Moreover, he ignores the need  to invest more heavily in effective community  services.”

Doris A. Fuller, executive  director of the Treatment  Advocacy Center, told MHW that after nearly three consecutive  years   of   very   public tragedies linked to severe mental illness, the public is looking for explanations  and solutions. “The successful    lives    of    people     who     are symptom-free  and  functional  is not the  explanation, and  more  services for people  who are stable enough  to engage  with  them  is not  the  solution,” she said.

Fuller  added,   “In  this  context, 60 Minutes’ decision  to explore  the experience,  treatment   options   and systematic  neglect  of the very small subset  of people  with mental illness that is disproportionately represented  among  the  homeless,  the  incarcerated   and,  yes,  the  violent,  was timely and  relevant.  I’m sure there’s never  been   a  60  Minutes  segment  that  didn’t  leave  some  segment   of the audience seething  or, at a mini- mum,  wishing  for a different  story, and this was no exception.”

Attempts  by  MHW to  reach  60 Minutes were unsuccessful.

Community services and supports

Mathis,  who   drafted   the  letter and  organized   a  community   effort around  it, said they would like to see effective community  services such as supported  housing,   supported  employment,    mobile    crisis   services, peer  supports  and  mobile  community support  teams  highlighted  in a future  60 Minutes  broadcast.  “These services  are  extremely  effective  in enabling  people  with psychiatric disabilities to succeed  and are also less costly  than  emergency rooms,  psychiatric  hospitals,  jails and  shelters. But  they  are  unavailable   to  thousands of Americans who need them.”

The  Bazelon  Center  would  also like  to  offer  to  60  Minutes  mental health  experts  who  could  provide  a more  balanced  perspective and  discuss  the  gaps  that  exist  in  mental health  service  systems  and  the tools to address  these  gaps, as well as the lack of a strong relationship  between mental health and violence, she said. “The  discussion   of  recent   violent  events  has  sparked   knee-jerk,  myth-based  coverage   that  wrongly focuses  on  individuals  with  mental health  conditions   despite  the  minimal relationship  with violence,” said Mathis. “This coverage  is inaccurate and  stigmatizing.  It is time  to  stop scapegoating people  with  psychiatric disabilities  in  the  rush  for  easy solutions to a complicated  problem.”

Incarceration issues

Cook  County  (Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart  also  appeared on  60 Minutes. He indicated that between 2,500 and 2,800 people  with mental illness are incarcerated  in  Cook  County  jails, dubbed by 60 Minutes  as the “new insane  asylum” for that  population. Dart told 60 Minutes  correspondent Steve Kroft that many of those  individuals  were  arrested  for  incidents like stealing because  they were hungry or  trespassing  or  breaking  into places looking  for shelter.

60 Minutes  missed  an opportunity to follow up on such key points as the  offenders  with mental  illness who  are poor,  have no place  to live and  are  being  charged  with  disorderly  conduct,   added   Debbie  Plotnick,  senior  director of state  policy for  Mental  Health  America  (MHA), which  also  signed  the  letter.  “The crux of the story is that we’ve gotten rid of [state] hospitals, and now people  with  mental  illness  are  in  jail,” Plotnick told MHW.

Also   disconcerting    about    the show  were  the  two  young  men  in their  early  20s with  serious  mental illness who  were  profiled,  she  said. “What we  saw  in the  piece  was  an example  of two  young  people  who were   isolated   and   frightened   and their  families were  frightened,”  said Plotnick.

Plotnick  added   that  the  show made people  seem as if they had no hope.  “In fact, there  are  more  reasons to be hopeful  when you have a complete  picture,” she  said. “We do need  more  community  support,  resources and coordination. We do have   to  do  things  that  are  much more cost-effective.”

“Mental Health  America  would urge and appreciate the opportunity to tell a more complete  story and to offer  examples  of  programs  in  the community  that work and of people  in recovery,” said Plotnick.

The  Bazelon  Center  urged  the National  Mental Health  Consumers’ Self-Help   Clearinghouse    and    the other groups  to also send  their own letters  to  Fager,  said  Susan  Rogers, director    of   the    National    Mental Health  Consumers’  Self-Help Clearinghouse. She also wrote  a letter to Fager and  a blog post  outlining  the organization’s  concerns,  which  was posted  on www.madinamerica.com.

“I would   like  to  see  coverage that   would    feature   true   statistics about  violence  and  mental  illness, which  are  very  different  from  the stats   on   the   show,”   Rogers   told MHW.  “Producers   from  the   show should   also   interview   individuals who  are  in  recovery,  showing  that they  are  living  productive  lives  in the community. The 60 Minutes segment  did not show  that people  can and  do recover  from even  the most severe mental health  conditions.”