Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Political Rhetoric and Mental Illness

Some in the news are excited to say that the shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords may have been mentally ill, in which case the overheated political rhetoric of the past year or two had nothing to do with it. Not so fast! Actually, hostile talk in the news may have even more of an impact on some of those with mental illness than on the average person.


I used to work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with people with schizophrenia in a psychiatric hospital and many were extremely sensitive to the news and other programs – especially those that displayed hostility and violence. While most people with schizophrenia are not violent and many lead fairly normal lives with modern medications, some of those with “paranoid type” schizophrenia truly believe that the television sends electronic messages directly to their brains and controls their thoughts. Some develop delusions that certain individuals are out to get them, so that they became preoccupied with the person as a real threat and, in very rare situations, take violent action against them.

People with schizophrenia start out life as normally as everyone else. Then, generally between about 20 – 25 they have a “psychotic break” and quickly or slowly start having bizarre thoughts and strange behavior. We still don’t know exactly why schizophrenia develops, and studies show that even in identical twins one may get it and the other doesn’t. They may hear voices (auditory hallucinations) and develop delusions about people that simply could not be true. These can range from mild to severe. Most high-conflict people do not have this mental illness and are in touch with reality, even though they are difficult and blame others a lot.

But for some with paranoid type schizophrenia, reality blends with their hallucinations and delusions -and that’s where violent and extreme political rhetoric can have an impact. For someone with extreme paranoid type schizophrenia, it can be dangerous and suggestive to hear and see others point the finger at an individual as a target of blame who deserves to be eliminated. People in positions of authority or public figures appear to have incredible power, so they are vulnerable to becoming targets for those with these delusions - or making others a target. They should be cautious about their rhetoric and become role models of civil discourse - for their own sake as well as ours.

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