Pete Earley on Why the Stigma and Shame of Mental Illness Must End

When you have a mental illness and you have
an awful encounter with the police — especially when you’ve been tasered, or handcuffed, or
put in jail — um, and then you start thinking clearly, you’re terribly ashamed because you’re
not a criminal, and you don’t want people to think of you as being a criminal. You know, my son had done nothing wrong before
this incident, and in his case he had broken into a house to take a bubble bath, likely
no one was there. And, he was so shameful that he went back
to the police and he said, “Look, I’m not that person. I’m not the psychotic person who you hauled
down the stairs kicking and screaming. I’m not the person you tasered. I’m not the person who got thrown in the back
of a police car and transported and, you know, was yelling and screaming. I’m not the person who you hog-tied on the
floor when I was talking gibberish about how God had me on a special mission. I was sick, okay? And I want you to know that I’m a good person.” And the fact that he had to go back and do
that, I mean, I can’t imagine going to a doctor and saying, “Look, I’m really, really sorry I had
a heart attack,” you know? Or “I’m really, really sorry that I have bad
eyes and have to wear contacts.” Or, you know, this is an illness, and
yet we put people in positions where they’re deeply ashamed. And of course that contributes
to the stigma of “I don’t want to admit this.” And we do it, you know, our whole society
does it. And the advertising, and how we portray people,
going back to the days of Psycho and on, and people make fun of, and you know, it’s interesting,
why…we’re scared of people who are psychotic on our streets, but there’s something else going on there. And, that is, if you really believe that that
person who is homeless on the street who is ranting and raving because they’re sick, that
means you should do something about it. You’ll never see anyone with Down Syndrome
who is homeless on the street. And when someone with Alzheimer’s is wandering
the streets, we get alarmed and send out bulletins. But, everyday we walk by people who are sick,
because of schizophrenia, and they’re on the street, and we don’t do anything about it. Because we want to blame them. Because, if we blame them and say “Oh, they
love living outside” or “They love…they must choose to be psychotic,” it does two
things. It relieves us of having to do anything, but
it also puts blame on them. “They chose this, they deserve it, they need
to be punished.”

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