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.”
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.”