Dear Mr. Parker: Please stop referring to us as “crazy,” and conflating “mental illness” with violence; Dear Media: Please stop letting everyone you interview get away with this

by Jeanene Harlick | August 30, 2015 12:02 am

Did you know that the mentally ill are no more likely to commit acts of violence than the general public? (3-5 percent of violent acts are associated with people with severe mental illness, to be exact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services1.

Did you know that, on the contrary, people with severe mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime rather than commit them?

No, I bet you didn’t. Due to the entrenched prejudice toward the mentally ill which saturates the Western world, and the media’s failure to ever call people out on it.

Acts of atrocious, tragic public violence have been rampant this past year in particular. And every time such an event occurs, I can literally count the seconds before some news reporter or pundit – or a family member of a victim – starts implicating “mental illness,” and associating it with gun violence and policy.

Sometimes mental illness is a factor; most of the time it isn’t. But the facts don’t really matter to family members, the general public, or the media.

It matters a hell of a lot to me. Because I’ve been labeled “mentally ill,” and its mythical association with violence is a primary reason why I experience prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis; why I can’t get a job to save my life; and why I live in poverty – despite holding college degrees and being a former, experienced journalist.

The on-air killing of Alison Parker Wednesday was a tragedy. And I don’t blame her father for being angry or even, necessarily, for dismissing all the mentally ill as unsound, “crazy people” – because this is a man in the throes of emotional pain, and he’s just an example of the unrecognized, widespread prejudice toward the mentally ill which has been indoctrinated into almost all people living in Western societies for centuries.

But using such language – and particularly in the derisive way Mr. Parker and many others routinely do – in effect lumps all those labeled “mentally ill” together, with the underlying subtext we are all deranged, all prone to violence, all unfit for full participation in American society, and that we should not be afforded the same rights as other citizens. And that is not fair, and not representative of the democratic principles our nation was founded on.

So while I don’t blame Mr. Parker, I do blame the media for failing to qualify or question such language, after this type of footage airs; I protest the media’s persistent refusal to call such language what it is (prejudice), and to remind its viewers, or readers, that terms like “crazy” are pejorative and stigmatizing, and that their use reflects and perpetuates entrenched, negative attitudes toward the mentally ill.

Let me ask you this —

How would you react if the father of a daughter fatally shot by a person of ethnicity, in public, said in the days following the shooting:

“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about chi#ks getting guns.”

“It’s senseless that her life… was taken by a nig#er with a gun.”

“He was a sp#c that got a gun, and that’s part two of where we’re going with this.”

I think it’s pretty fair to say the public reaction would be one of outrage.

Replace “ch#nk”, “n#gger,” and “sp#c” with “crazy people,” “crazy person,” and “crazy man,” and you get what Andy Parker, Alison Parker’s father, said to Fox News and CNN this week.

“Outrage” is an apt term for how many of us labeled “mentally ill” feel when we hear ourselves grouped together – when we come in many different shades – and referred to contemptuously as “crazy,” by voices brimming with disgust, in the wake of public acts of violence.

Crazy is a word just as pejorative as the epithets sometimes used to refer to other minorities. Consider the word’s origins. First used routinely in the 16th century, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, “crazy”’s connotations then included “flawed,” “damaged,” impaired, “unsound,” “diseased,” “infirm,” “demented,” “cracked,” and “deranged2.” Today, its contemporary, dictionary definition still includes the terms “having flaws or cracks” and “deranged.” Those are anything but neutral terms.

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