Don’t Assume I’m Violent Because I Have Mental Illness
I grew up in a violent household. Throughout my life, I’ve been driven not to play into the stereotypes of my community as a Mexican-American. But in the past year, I’ve also been driven to defy the stereotype that people with mental illness are violent—a stereotype I’ve become very familiar with recently.
About a year ago, I was bullied at work for reporting a toxic work environment. I discovered the CEO was one of many who concealed my complaint. This discovery made me feel very paranoid and prevented me from sleeping. This combined with extreme family stress of caring for my brother, who has schizophrenia, led to the unraveling of my mental health. This combination ultimately led to my onset and diagnoses of bipolar disorder.
I filed a report with the DC Office of Human Rights (DCOHR) then later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I informed my employer of my mental breakdown and need for medical leave, while also informing them of the external employment discrimination complaint I filed. They quickly moved to terminate me.
I never said or did anything that could even be interpreted as a threat. Yet, they arranged a mandatory emergency staff meeting where they informed my colleagues that they felt I might be a violent threat to the office. They even had a picture of me placed at the front desk in the entrance of the building. This dramatically increased my paranoia. While I was initially willing to receive medical attention, my employer’s response sent me down a vortex of paranoia and shame, pushing me away from getting the mental health care I needed.
I developed a delusional belief that I needed to refrain from seeking medical attention to prove I was not violent. Due to the stress of the situation, I eventually went to the emergency room, but only because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack. I was told I was experiencing first episode psychosis, which required immediate follow up. However, for some reason the birthdate on my employer-provided health care was recently changed. My employer refused to correct the error, which only continued to add to my extreme paranoia. As a result of the issue with my insurance, I could not get the follow up treatment that was strongly recommended.
The belief that I was a violent threat to the office severely impacted and damaged my psyche and mental health. Even later when I was on a path of recovery from the symptoms of bipolar disorder, extreme anxiety and shame still plagued me. So much that I struggled to leave my apartment out of fear of running into former colleagues. I had so much shame. When my employer claimed I was a violent threat, I felt a sucker punch in two delicate spots: my ethnic identity and my mental illness. The overwhelming sense of guilt, combined with my depressive episode, made me feel that I not only failed the mental health community but also my ethnic community.
A lot has changed in my life since then. After several hospitalizations, I eventually got the care I needed. And now nearly a year later, I am back on my feet, volunteering at NAMI, and preparing to represent myself in court. Although overwhelming, I feel honored to have the opportunity to legally put a dent in the misconception that people experiencing mental health problems are violent. Even though it’s only one case, I hope it helps prevent further discrimination in the mental health community.
Xochitl Villarrealis a 28-year-old California native. In addition to preparing to represent himself in court, he is currently volunteering at NAMI’s headquarters in Arlington, VA. Xochitl enjoys reading, pottery, rock climbing, and video games. He served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and graduated with two bachelor’s degrees from California State University San Marcos. If you want to chat, please feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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