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Dear Professor Vatz,
Reading your article printed in yesterday’s Washington Times, I was quite alarmed that a man of your expertise would publish a piece that effectively served to reinforce the stigma that surrounds persons suffering from mental illnesses.
As a man who has been diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, I have recently dedicated my entire life to fighting stigma and combating the kind of unfounded ignorance you demonstrated in your piece.
When you suggest that people who suffer from a mental health disorder do not have a “genuine medical illness,” this statement alone makes apparent to me two things — you have never seen a family member or loved one battle with a mental disorder, and also that you’re unaware of the medical data which proves otherwise. By creating such a premise and not critically thinking through your motivations, you insult 26.6 million Americans who, according to the National Institute on Mental Health, have suffered from a mental health disorder in the last 12 months.
Another thing I find troublesome is that you seem to suggest that there should not be an ‘insanity’ plea available to the mental ill who commits a crime because of his her medical disorder. If someone experiences his or her first epileptic seizure while operating a motor vehicle and subsequently kills another driver, should this person be charged for a crime? Then why would you throw the book at someone, who because of an illness, hurts another individual? These people need help, not to be thrown into a cage and be further stigmatized, increasing the likelihood that they will continue to experience problems down the line.
What has happened in the last 50 years? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we as a nation have reduced our psychiatric hospital beds from 550,000 to less than 50,000 all the while increasing a mentally ill prison population to over 1.2 million. Is this a way for a civilized society to act?
Furthermore, toward the end of your article, you suggest that the cost will “skyrocket” if people seek the help they need, and that we will become a “nation of victims.” Outpatient services in my home state of South Carolina cost taxpayers $2,400 per year. But incarceration costs $17,500. If people do not have the services available to get the help they need, the overall cost can easily be ten times greater over the long run.
It also appears that you have no room in your heart for life, when you recognize that 90 percent of suicides, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, are committed by people who have mental health diagnoses. Yes, mental illness kills more people on an annual basis than car accidents and almost as many as breast cancer.
Finally, I am truly surprised that an academic such as yourself would print such an article that only serves to perpetuate the very crux of the problem. You suggest in your summary that we cannot afford the social or literal cost of this cultural change. I will take my last breath defending my belief that there is no way we can afford NOT to change.
I am asking you to retract this letter immediately, and if not, I would gladly challenge you to a debate on this subject. I am currently scheduled to be in Washington, D.C. to testify before the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues on Dec. 18, if you could make that time work.
With truth and sincerity,