People gather at Denton’s South Branch Library on Monday for a panel, “Unlinking Violence and Mental Illness,” hosted by the Disability Inclusion Society. The forum sought to destigmatize the association of mental illness as a precipitating factor of violence.

A community forum this week looked at destigmatizing mental illnesses and critiquing their association with violence in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso and in the Midland-Odessa area last month. The Disability Inclusion Society, a nonpartisan disability rights and culture organization, hosted the forum, titled “Unlinking Violence and Mental Illness,” at Denton’s South Branch Library.

Val Vera, executive director of the newly formed Disability Inclusion Society, said the organization felt Monday night’s forum was necessary in light of the recent Texas tragedies and the quick inclination to blame mental illness. To break down misrepresentation of people with disabilities or mental illness, Vera said of Monday’s forum, there needs to be better representation and broader inclusion of the lives and experiences within our society.

During the four-member panel discussion, moderator Martha Bergen, the organization’s teaching and education coordinator, discussed misconceptions of mental illness in an open question-and-answer format. Bergen said the group sought to provide education on the topic and clarify facts from fiction regarding to the link between mental illness and violence.

“So we’re here to open up a conversation and get some clarification from our experts,” Bergen said before introducing the panelists.

The forum panel included Claudette Fette, a mental health advocate and professor at Texas Woman’s University; Enny Torres-Yanez, staff psychologist at TWU; Enedelia Sauceda, staff psychologist and multicultural/diversity coordinator at University of North Texas’ Counseling and Testing Services Center, and Lydia Martinez, a mental health advocate and peer support specialist.

About 30 attendees were able to submit written questions to be answered by the panelists. Their questions included the likelihood of violence instigated by those with mental illness, how the media can reshape or reframe the topic, and which solution-based actions can best address this issue.

Compared to someone without a mental illness diagnosis, Fette said a person with a mental illness is “generally not more likely to be violent than anyone else.” However, she said, two exceptions exist: a person who is at risk of suicide, and someone experiencing the first episode of psychosis, a severe mental disorder that impairs a person’s thoughts and emotions from reality.

“There is a much greater risk for suicide for someone particularly who has depression, and that would be violence against oneself,” Fette said. “There is a slight elevation of risk around the first episode of psychosis, but that is really limited to family members and people close to that person.”

Within the United States, individuals with a diagnosed mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence, as opposed to perpetrators, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Martinez said she believes a leading factor behind the statistic boils down to the vulnerability of a person with mental illness.

“Unfortunately, the Texas prison system is the largest hospital for people with mental health challenges,” Martinez said, referring to an estimated 15% to 24% of incarcerated persons who have a serious mental illness. “Also, the number of people who are becoming homeless living on the street ... are targets of violence, whether it’s sexual assault or physical assault.”

In regard to vulnerable populations such as those with mental illness, Fette said individuals within this population are at greater risk because of social stigmas.

“When we dehumanize people because they have mental illness — which we often do culturally across our society — we make it easier to hurt them without consequence when we treat people less than human, and unfortunately that happens,” Fette said.

During the forum, one audience member asked about the media’s role in reporting mass violence and mental illness, and whether the media could frame the issue differently. Torres-Yanez said she would prefer members of the media to stick “straight to the facts” and to “try to be honest with how you’re using language.”

Currently there is not enough available information on mass shootings to make a completely data-informed decision, Fette said, but she noted that common factors such as a person’s history of domestic violence or narcissism could reveal his or her tendencies. Fette said she would recommend that media reports stick to the facts and the perpetrator’s history.

“Instead of going immediately to the trope of, ‘Oh, well, he’s white so he must be mentally ill’ — uh, no,” Fette said. “He committed violence, so he must have a history of violence — maybe let’s go with that.”

Toward the end of the forum, panel members discussed solution-based actions to mental illness and gun violence, which revolved largely around seeking out resources and being aware of warning signs. The greatest risk for people with mental illness, Fette said, is not homicide, but rather suicide — and that a history of depression and suicidal ideation can put a person at even greater risk.

In 2017, firearms accounted for 50.6% of all suicide deaths in the United States, and white males accounted for 69.7% of all suicides, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Sauceda said anyone can consult with a mental health professional.

“I think for a lot of folks in distress that to be seen and to be heard by a loved one, it’s very powerful,” Sauceda said. “To express what you’ve seen in regards to change in behavior, or wanting to help them get access to community resources.”

Denton City Council member Deb Armintor, who was in attendance at Monday’s forum, said she was pleased with the turnout and the organization’s emphasis on decoupling violence from mental illness.

Her biggest takeaway from the forum: “People really need to understand that people who are suffering from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, or violence against themselves, i.e., suicide,” Armintor said. “I really appreciated the panelists and their comments, the audience questions — it was wonderful.”

Vera said that although he wasn’t surprised by the turnout, he was pleased to see attendees’ interaction during the organization’s first event. He acknowledged he had been worried about audience questions and whether they would remain organic, but found the questions and panelists’ responses to be pinpointed and specific.

“It just goes to show people’s personal experiences and knowledge,” Vera said.

RYAN HIGGS can be reached via Twitter at @HiggsUNT.

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