Last month, Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after instigating the suicide of close friend, Conrad Roy, via text communication. As the verdict was read, legal progressives celebrated the evolution of technology’s role and responsibility in our criminal justice system. And to be fair, this case was a huge step forward towards the future prosecution and elimination of cyberbullying. But as I watched the judicial proceedings unfold through my own eyes as a mental health advocate, I could not help but feel that this trial lay bare the sobering reality that prejudices and misconceptions still mischaracterize those with mental illness.
As someone who has battled anxiety and depression for many years, I recognize that there is extra care I need to take on a daily basis to maintain my mental stability, happiness, and productivity. I have sought counseling for many years, and have taken medication when necessary. I exercise and meditate nearly every day to quell my anxiety. I am no different than the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness in this country. We are hardworking, caring, functioning members of our communities. We continue to give back and contribute every day. And in most cases, you would be unlikely to differentiate us from anyone else. We sit at the desks of your classrooms, walk the halls of your offices, and serve as leaders in your community. But we recognize that we are responsible for our own actions and accountable to others. We do not ask for pity, special treatment, or to be viewed differently than anyone else. While there are exceptions in cases of severe psychiatric illness, these instances are extremely few and far between.
When individuals like Michelle Carter associate vindictive and disturbing conduct with mental illness, it reinforces stigmatizing associations between psychiatric illness and violence. Carter’s attempt to alleviate her own pain and misery by bullying Conrad Roy, a depressed and vulnerable individual, led to this tragic and fatal consequence. Carter’s defense team blamed antidepressant medications for her actions, attempting to remove any responsibility for her behavior. This dangerous and erroneous premise can discourage those afflicted with mental illness from seeking potentially life-saving help. When congressmen blame money laundering on mania, rapists blame violence on porn addiction, and musicians blame assault on anxiety, the entire mental health community pays the price for the perpetuation of these groundless fallacies.
There are three important lessons to learn from this trial:
First, there is no association between violence and mental illness. According to the National Institutes of Health, “the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 percent to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.” Conrad Roy’s tragic death serves as a tragic example of this.
Second, trust mental health professionals in regard to your recovery. When battling mental illness, having the support of friends and family is essential. However, it is not a substitute for counseling by trained professionals, who are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. This trial was a devastating example of what happens when two individuals rely significantly on one-another in regard to recovery. Carter was not qualified to give Roy advice on depression or suicidal ideation, despite having dealt with similar issues herself. Patients and doctors work together towards recovery. Clinicians make treatment decisions based on risk-benefit assessments. Despite the unconvincing and self-serving testimony of Dr. Breggin, SSRI medications have proven to be safe, effective, and in many cases, life-saving. If your mental health provider suggests pharmacological treatment for anxiety and depression, do not let this testimony discourage you from seeking help.
Finally, encouraging a person to take their life is wrong. Giving a friend space to talk about suicidal thoughts can be life-saving. Throughout Carter and Roy’s relationship, the two often discussed dealing with depression and suicidal ideation. To be as clear as possible, Carter was not convicted of involuntary manslaughter because she provided a platform for Roy to vocalize his pain and desires. She was convicted for actively encouraging him to take his own life.
Suicidal ideation is a hallmark of major depression. Yet, it remains one of the most difficult subjects for those who experience it to talk about with friends, family and even mental health professionals. People with depression commonly believe they are the only ones having such disturbing imagery in their minds. And worse, they fear that talking about suicidal ideation will land them in a hospital, get them kicked out of school or labeled as “crazy.” They fear talking about such thoughts to a friend could trigger someone to also experience those thoughts.
According to Crisis Text Line, asking a person whether they are feeling suicidal will not trigger them into becoming suicidal. Rather, giving a struggling individual the space to talk about these thoughts can provide tremendous relief and can instill trust. Nobody can overcome depression in isolation; these conversations are imperative for progress towards true recovery.
At the end of the day, this trial was a tragedy resulting in the destruction of two vulnerable, young lives. It reflects the changing nature of today’s communication, where cruelty is more common online than in-person. However, I believe we must celebrate the implications from this ruling. Dr. Breggin’s misleading testimony was ultimately ineffective. Michelle was forced to take responsibility for what happened. Mental illness and antidepressants could not simply be scapegoated. We must continue to discuss mental health stigma outside of stories like these. We need to continue to show that recovery is not just possible, but probable. We need to continue to grow into a community that is actually willing to listen when people need help the most. We need to be better than what happened to Conrad Roy.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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Thinkstock photo via BCFC