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Why Bernie Sanders' Mental Health Joke Doesn't Matter

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This weekend was one that saw both Bernie Sanders’ off-color joke during the Democratic debate and the shooting of a pastor in Idaho by a marine suffering from an undisclosed mental illness.

Both of these isolated incidents once again reveal a much larger general truth – most folks aren’t even close to knowing what they need to know in order to properly participate in a conversation about mental health. All one has to do is take a look at the comments section that accompany the countless articles that have been written about both occurrences to see that ignorance abounds.

Sanders’ comment was off-base and I didn’t think it was that funny, but it’s more a result of society’s ignorance toward mental illness than a personal attack. Sanders has taken a pretty clear stance when it comes to timely and affordable care for folks affected with a mental illness, but it’s easy to make jokes when you aren’t directly affected.

The Internet has created a culture of instant outrage. I believe getting angry about a soon-to-be forgotten and insignificant one-liner distracts us from an opportunity for real discussion. Besides, I’m sure most folks who are offended have said an inappropriate thing or two in their lives they wish they could take back.

Sanders’ comment isn’t the issue. Instead, we should be focusing on the fact that the joke was a low-hanging fruit — people with mental illnesses are such easy targets, we can often be turned into scapegoats.

We should be much more concerned about how the media is once again handling an act of violence by a white man toward another white man. One of the first pieces of information made public about the shooter was that he had a mental illness.

And to me, the tendency for that to be one of the first things brought up when a white person shoots somebody is much more dangerous than a dumb and poorly-timed joke.

Rightfully so, the past several years have seen a rise in public outrage when non-white shooters are automatically branded as thugs or terrorists. The same standards don’t seem to apply when dealing with white shooters and mental illness.

Second amendment rights advocates love to use the maxim about guns not killing people, but recently there’s been a second part added to that worn-out dismissal of the danger of guns — “mentally ill people kill people.

The problem with mental illness being the go-to story when it comes to shootings by white folks is that it presents completely inaccurate portrayal of the demographic. The contribution of the mentally ill to overall crime rates is actually an extremely low 3 to 5 percent.

As it turns out, folks with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes. But despite that, a study of American’s overall attitudes on mental health conducted over nearly 50 years found the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled over that time. Many of those surveyed believed that folks with mental illnesses posed a threat for violence towards others and themselves.

Bernie Sanders isn’t a catalyst; just as one man with a mental illness shooting a pastor is more anomaly than norm. The problem doesn’t begin or end with either case, but both cases point out why it’s so important that we change the way we portray and talk about mental illness.

The vast majority of news stories on mental illnesses focus on negative characteristics such as unpredictability and unsociability. Positive stories that highlight the recovery of folks are notably absent.

Pop culture doesn’t help. Characters with mental illness on television shows are depicted as the most dangerous of all groups. In fact, 60 percent of television characters afflicted by mental illness carry out violent crimes and act as the antagonist.

As mental health advocates and allies, I believe we can more effectively help by sticking to facts and statistics rather than wasting our time being outraged over a dumb one-liner in an election cycle filled with polarizing candidates.

There have been so many articles and blog posts regarding Bernie Sanders’ attempt at a joke, but I’ve hardly seen any showing concern for mental illness being blamed once again for a nationally publicized act of violence.

I believe the effects of the stigma and discrimination caused by stories like the Idaho pastor shooting are profound and wide-reaching. Said stigma leads others to avoid living and socializing with those diagnosed with a mental illness. It also leads to hesitation when it comes to working with, renting to or employing people with diagnosed mental disorders.

This is a problem on a couple of fronts. First, it compounds feelings of low self-esteem, isolation and hopelessness which are already hallmarks of some mental illnesses. More importantly, it deters the public from seeking out the care they so desperately need because of the embarrassment and shame attached to stigma.

In response to this stigma, people with mental health problems can internalize public attitudes, begin to conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment, which can have deadly result.

As somebody who suffers from a mental illness, I understand the burden we can carry and how easy it is develop a proverbial chip on our shoulders. I also understand that if we focus on one stupid joke by a guy who likely had no malicious intent, we are veering away from the bigger problem.

Focusing on that bigger problem allows us to demonstrate on a larger scale how conversations about mental health are framed, and done effectively, can provide us with the ability to reframe those conversations and educate a misinformed public.

Follow this journey on Dad; diagnosed

Originally published: March 11, 2016
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