Setting the Record Straight: Ignorance Breeds Stigma

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

  • In this blog I continue the mini-series dramatizing the widely varying reactions of others to the fact that I have schizophrenia.  These have dotted the calendar from the time I first developed this brain disease in 1956 until the present day.  In this blog I will illustrate an extraordinary reaction from one member of the general public.


    The encounter took place within the last few years when I was giving a presentation as a part of the In Our Own Voice program.  This is a National Alliance on Mental Illness [NAMI] program in which consumers share their personal stories of recovery with many different audiences, including the general public.  I am both an In Our Own Voice presenter and a national trainer of presenters.  The program provides an important public service and is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

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    The following is a recreation of my own experience and, except for my own, all names have been changed.

     

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    After years of experience I had learned the hard way to arrive early when making a presentation.  I found the TV and VCR already connected and positioned on a metal cart in an appropriate spot at the front of the synagogue.  However, I soon discovered that the only electrical outlet was sixty feet away.  The power cords of both units were, of course, at most six feet long.


    Never mind, the sponsor of the presentation dispatched someone immediately to retrieve an extension cord.  She returned precisely at the time that the presentation was to begin.  The sixty odd members of the audience would not be disappointed or forced to wait.


    Or would they?  The extension cord was certainly long enough.  But it would accept only a single plug and I had a TV and a VCR.  Another person was sent out to scrounge up a solution.  He returned about twenty minutes later with a second extension cord.  I am not a good standup comedian, so by this time the audience was getting restless.  To save time I announced that questions were to be held until the end of the formal portion of the presentation, which I promptly began.  Most audience members seemed to relax as we got about five minutes into the forty minute program.


    Despite my announcement about deferring questions, from the outset, a gentleman in the back raised his hand with even the shortest pause in the formal presentation.  He was obviously eager to ask a question and wanted to be the first to do so.


    At the end of the presentation, the mysterious gentleman raised his hand for the n-th time, waving it back and forth to attract my attention.  I decided he’d earned the opportunity to ask the first question.  After all, he’d probably worked harder than I had over the last forty minutes.  The nature of his question, however, hit like a line backer on my blind side.


    “Don’t you think that all persons with mental illness should be required to register and have their presence in a community reported to their neighbors?”


    This was, of course, a loaded question.  It took me a minute to collect my thoughts.  The gentleman who had asked the question was smiling from ear to ear, pleased that his challenge had apparently stumped me and gained the attention of the whole audience.  What troubled me most was the fact that he clearly believed his question had merit.


  • “Well sir, that’s an interesting question.  Let’s look at the facts.”

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    “First of all, I’ve lived in the New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia areas.  In all these cities there are numerous murders, commonly more than one a day.  There are so many murders that, except on a very slow day, these never make the local news.  On the other hand, if a person with mental illness commits a murder its instantly national news.  Your perception is understandably in error.  In fact, it has been found that persons with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators.”


    “Secondly, statistics have clearly shown that you, sir, are more likely to be murdered by your wife or children than by a person with mental illness.  They in turn are more likely to be murdered by you.”


    “So, when you, your wife and children all agree to register, I too will do so.”


    The questioner’s face turned white and then red.  He sat quietly through the remainder of the question and answer period.  When the program was completed, he was not among those that approached me with personal questions.

     

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    Your challenge for this blog is to speculate on the reasons our anonymous questioner was so eager to ask the question he did.  Look for more than one underlying motivation.  Please enter your thoughts about this in the comments section below.


    You will now find among the comments to my previous blog my own thoughts concerning the relative importance of medications and socialization to John’s recovery.


    I urge you to continue reading this mini-series and, in the comments section of each, to post your responses to the questions raised.  It’ll be interesting to see if we all arrive at the same or similar conclusions.


    The perspectives on schizophrenia I provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member.  I have walked the walk on both sides of the street.  As such, I can speak with experiential authority.  It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with schizophrenia has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you.   Equally important, I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience.  Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.

     

Published On: March 12, 2007