March 15, 2019

By Xochitl Villarrealis

Given the recent violence that has rocked our country, I think it’s important to address the myth and public misconception that people with mental illness are inherently violent. Unfortunately, the media plays a role in perpetuating this misconception and research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that the media’s focus on violence and mental illness actually exacerbates stigma and decreases support for people with mental illnesses. 

It’s important to challenge this misconception for two reasons. First, it’s simply not an accurate representation of the facts. Second, because this misconception contributes to discrimination and stigma, which interferes with access to mental health care, especially for minorities

As Patrick Corrigan, Psy.D, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology states, “many people who would benefit from mental health services opt not to pursue them or fail to fully participate once they have begun. One of the reasons for this disconnect is stigma; namely, to avoid the label of mental illness and the harm it brings, people decide to not seek or fully participate in treatment.”

My Brother is Not a “Suspicious Person”

My experience with mental illness began with my older brother. Although he started showing symptoms of schizophrenia towards the end of my high school years, he didn’t become fully unable to care for himself until I began college. While I was away, he was kicked out of my parents’ house. He was homeless for a while. He was completely off the grid, and I had no way of locating him. 

I eventually found him living near the pier in Oceanside, Cal. I struggled to care for him while working and attending college full-time. I had no idea how to handle the situation nor was I aware of mental health care in general. It kind of just doesn’t exist in some communities. 

His appearance and unusual mannerisms made him a cop magnet. I was often interrupted from work or my studies in order to retrieve him from law enforcement. Although his appearance, homelessness and abnormal behavior was a direct result of his untreated mental illness, law enforcement often justified their involvement because of reports made by public bystanders. The police then translated his behavior to the assumption that he must be under the influence of a controlled substance rather than experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. This led to his arrest several times.

Many times, I asked the police why they approached him. I was often told someone reported him as a “suspicious person” lingering too long in one spot or that his appearance made some people uncomfortable, despite being in public spaces. I remember talking to a MiraCosta College police officer about his justification for banning my brother from campus for a 48-hour period. His homeless appearance had discomforted someone in the enrollment office. Luckily, these police officers did not feel inclined to use violence to find a solution. However, that was not the case for several other encounters. 

My Brother is Not Violent or Dangerous

It was very common for people to call the police when they saw my brother, whether it was because of some vague, subjective “suspicious behavior” or for simply being a person experiencing homelessness. He started to develop a record with law enforcement. This along with his appearance and inability to comprehend the situation sometimes, some police officers moved very quickly to arrest him under the belief he was under the influence of a controlled substance, which he was not. 
I know police brutality is a divisive issue, but it exists regardless of opinion. Some officers so quickly resorted to brute and excessive force in order to arrest him. Following his first traumatic and violent experience with law enforcement, he would often attempt to flee when approached by law enforcement. As many familiar with schizophrenia know, the condition often creates symptoms of extreme fear. The more violent encounters exponentially compounded his fear of the police. 

In his reality, he truly feared for his life, which explained why he would instinctually run away from police. Unfortunately, those flight responses to the police would often automatically trigger a violent approach. I remember feeling so useless while my blood boiled as I stood and watched these injustices unfold before my eyes. There was nothing I could do but just watch and hope I didn’t attract too much attention of an enraged officer. 

My Brother Simply Needed Help

Eventually my landlord banned him from the house where I was renting a room. After that he experienced homelessness again and the cop magnet cycle continued, and he continued to develop his record with law enforcement, typically unjustly. 
For better or worse, he eventually became a Ward of the State of California and that is when his treatment began. Due to his court-ordered treatment, he was able to slowly regain the ability to care for himself. He eventually ended up getting his driver’s license again and returned to school part-time. He is still in treatment and lives a more fulfilled life now. 

It is vital that we as a society refrain assumptions that negatively impact communities, such as the misconception that people with mental illnesses are violent. Doing so significantly contributes to shame and stigma, adding another reason why some people avoid treatment. It also makes it harder for these individuals to find work after they recover from their conditions. 

My brother has an extensive police record due directly to his mental illness, which makes job searching much more challenging. The discrimination he faces has been a significant obstacle for him to overcome throughout his journey. Living with mental illness is already so challenging, these added obstacles can make it near-impossible for people like my brother to lead the fulfilling lives they deserve.

Xochitl Villarrealis a 28-year-old California native. 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 [email protected].

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