Leora Skolkin-Smith: The Stigma of Mental Illness

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Leora SkolkinAt the anniversary of the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon, my head filled, as everyone’s undoubtedly did, with questions of about why the perpetrators, both so young, could have been stopped. But my thoughts also went to questions about why the term “mental illness” of and by itself seems to come to public consciousness most prominently at these times of extreme violence and terrorism. And around what consequences diagnosing psychopathic terrorists as “mentally ill” will have on the rest of the already heavily stigmatized “mentally ill” population in our country. The truth is that less that 1% of the mentally ill population in America will commit a violent crime against another person.

If any violent act is committed by a mentally ill person it will more than likely, nine times out of ten, be against themselves. The stigma of mental illness, poisonous enough to one’s sense of self esteem after being discharged from a psychiatric hospital, coupled with a widespread public fear of many of inexplicable and feverish states a person in a depression or other “mentally ill state” exhibits are now intricately linked to mass murder and terrorism when it feels that there is already enough of a primitive paranoia and aversion to the “mentally ill” in our society. And that disturbed me. It is true, undoubtably, that the criminals who committed these heinous acts could have been treated by a psychiatrist, but that would have also involved incarceration, a criminally-oriented therapy, very different than 99.5 percent of what is appropriate for the average “mentally ill” person.

All these disquieting thoughts brought me back to a character I had created for my novel, Hystera. A “gunman”, who was I had depicted as being on LSD and who had gone to Grand Central Station and started shooting at a Polaroid Blow Up. boarded up on the wall. The contrast in our times, my novel was set in 1975, and today’s horrors was so alarming, I couldn’t help but wonder if the world has changed that drastically, or if I just wasn’t capturing some depth in my character. Then, after viewing the horrors of the attack again at the Boston Marathon on the news this morning I realized, no, it was really true. In 1975, there had no such thing as a mass murder of civilians like this, not of a terrorist act anything close to what we have experienced in this new millennium. In fact, even when the SDS bombed buildings during anti-war protests, the people in the buildings were cleared out ahead of time. I researched Jane Alpert and the bombers who in 1972, bombed six buildings in Manhattan. Alpert called the superintendent and all the buildings were evacuated. There was not one human casualty. The “violence” had been politically motivated, and sometimes justifiably so as in the race protests, antiwar riots, and in the case my character, Leonard, bad trips from LSD and other hallucinogenics, plus a war faraway in Vietnam. I don’t know what profound conclusions to draw from the startling contrasts between “gunmen” except to note that such an extreme in our times and past time exists. That in a matter is of only fifty some years, the entire world in relation to guns and bombs and perpetrators has changed that dramatically. The whys still resound in my head.

Striking, too, and something I can’t help thinking about, though, is that the stigma of mental illness didn’t change. In the early middle ages, the suicides were thrown and killed at the crossroads of villages and said to rise again as vampires. The mentally ill in England in the middle ages were often put in cages and citizens were charged a shilling to gaze at them in a circus, as if they were curious animals. The witch hunts in Europe are infamous, purging society of the bizarre behavior exhibited by mentally ill people and even those struck by depression, thought to be “possessed.” I can’t help wondering if the new label of “terrorist” and “mass murderer”, (i.e. someone who is “mentally ill and needed treatment but didn’t get it and so shot and killed children, and others”) will be our new stigma. And I am hoping, or the part of me that doesn’t want to be so jaded and cynical that this labeling and lack of differentiation between psychopaths and 99.5% of our mentally population won’t stay.

I wanted to share a small part of Hystera below:

From Hystera: About the gunman, the patient, Leonard.

Leonard is the son of a very renowned chemist and engineer, you know,” (a patient explains in Hystera), His father helped discover the transistor for Bell Laboratories.” The patient, Lisas, like a cup of unskimmed information, Lilly (our main character) thought, something wildly stirred so that filmy layers settled on top, and unknown particles, curdled and scattered, swam around in the skim.

Lilly looked down at the clipping as Lisa continued talking.

The black-and-white photo in the newspaper portrayed white flames. Blurry images of people as they ran, scattering all over the Grand Central stairway. Soft-focused faces. Lilly could almost hear their screams, but could not make out individuals.

The caption under the photo read, Fire trucks and ambulances on the scene inside Grand Central Station where a Kodak picture exploded. A gunman was apprehended as hundreds fled.

Leonard was different,” Lisa was saying. Hes pretty much a straight, handsome man if you look at him. He cant handle his feelings, and he cant deal with anyone or anything except flat abstract theories. One day Leonard takes some acid another Columbia student gives him. So he gets a gun,” Lisa was continuing. A rifle from a friends hunting case, and goes to Grand Central Station and Bang! Bang! Bang! He fires at a twenty-by-twenty-foot photograph behind a glass shield. I think it was a blown-up Kodak moment’ of a picture-perfect family lying in a hammock somewhere, on vacation in the Caribbean, but with all these wires and electric circuits behind it to light it up over the station. Leonards lawyers have made him plead temporary insanity’ and under the influence of drugs,’ but he is a lost soul, you know.

Lisa was finished. She moved to the set of armchairs by the TV. The news was on by then, and some cartoons on other channels, and she seemed spent, having finally told Lilly the whole story of Leonard.

The patient Louise stood up. She began stretching out in a series of arm lifts and knee bends.

Lilly twisted around on the couch. She looked at the seat where Leonard sat last evening. The rain was still splashing, and it made the sky prematurely dark when Lilly looked back outside. The long evening had already begun.



Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera. You can learn more about her and her book at our website.

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On April 25, 2014
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