Perceptions of Mental Illness Can Prove Deadly

In Los Angeles last week, a 24-year-old man was shot three times in the chest and killed by a Los Angeles police officer. The man, who lived in a 15-person psychiatric facility, had schizophrenia. H

Feb 21, 2007 at 2:06 pm

In Los Angeles last week, a 24-year-old man was shot three times in the chest and killed by a Los Angeles police officer. The man, who lived in a 15-person psychiatric facility, had schizophrenia. He was carrying a screwdriver and, when ordered to drop it, ran from the police. They chased him and, when he turned and reportedly took a stab at one officer with the screwdriver, the other shot him. The police officer was wearing a bulletproof vest. The man, Francisco Mondragon, is dead.

The incident has raised the question of whether members of the LAPD receive adequate training for dealing with persons with psychiatric disabilities. I wonder, in fact, if police anywhere do — and if public attitudes and misconceptions regarding people with psychiatric disabilities aren't part of the problem.

In how many suspense thrillers is the most evil culprit someone with a mental disability? How often is an exploitation of some mental illness or other the punch line for a comedy routine or million-dollar commercial?

When someone blurts out that he or she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the reaction of many is to be uncomfortable, not make eye contact, find a new topic of conversation. When a woman learns that her baby in utero might be born with Down syndrome, how many think it's perfectly OK to just eliminate that baby and get a better one?

Our attitudes toward mental disabilities are so screwed up that it's tough to figure out how we got here.

On one hand, we decide to close down all the institutions and let those people go. That's certainly a good idea as, personally, I can't see the good in warehousing people anywhere for any reason. But we didn't think it through. People were kicked out of the nest, the institution, and now populate the streets as homeless people, with no assistance in regulating medicines, getting jobs, and/or holding onto some kind of stability.

We're spinning in circles with our public attitudes. We don't want to lock people up because they have psychiatric disabilities. But then we really don't want to deal with integrating them, either.

Then, to confuse the picture even further, a few conditions related to mental health have become somewhat trendy and almost cool in the last decade or so. One woman tells another at lunch, with no small amount of trepidation, that her doctor has prescribed antidepressants for her. The friend laughs and replies, "I've been on Prozac for years!" A computer expert bounces from one system to another, swigging his Mountain Dew, talking on the phone, turns to one project while leaving another unfinished. When the customer, who has just been ignored, questions the expert, he grins with an almost victorious grin, "It's my ADHD."

Then there are the psychological terms that have become part of the common vernacular. "He's so OCD." "She's acting so bipolar."

The translation in the context of most of these instances is positive. Mild depression? Don't sweat it. All productive people share the diagnosis. Attention deficit hyperactive disorder? Entertaining, productive, jumpy but gets the job done.

To a point, these attitudes mesh well enough with my own. People with different kinds of wiring or different kinds of chemicals working in their brains or different kinds of body structure or any other kind of "different" are all part of the same species called human. By these kinds of references, we're beginning to accept psychiatric differences, but only for some. Even though the OCD and bipolar references are somewhere between disparaging slurs and affectionate jabs, there's definitely a move toward acceptance of them in the mainstream.

The problem is that we're still silently ranking people, saying one is worth more than another. A guy with schizophrenia dies because he's waving around a screwdriver. A guy with bipolar disorder is hit so many times with a stun gun that he dies — all for the crime of running without reason. In other words, fear of the unknown conjures monsters and blocks recognition of just plain human with an illness.

With proper treatment, people with psychiatric disabilities can live more or less the same kind of lives that their neighbors who aren't diagnosed with such disabilities do. What they need and deserve is the same respect and dignity, whether the interaction is with a police officer or next person up in the grocery store checkout line.

Any of us can make the situation a little better. Think before you make jokes at the expense of any group of people. And instead of putting that person you think is strange in a one-down position from you, look them in the eye and try a small conversation.

It's hard to know, but always possible that if someone had taken that kind of time with Francisco Mondragon, he'd still be alive.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)