clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Stigma of mental illness plagues prom

Once every two years, Valley Mental Health patients go to a prom, but this year's event is receiving less support and organizers say it is because of shootings by mentally ill people.

Fatal shootings at the Triad Center and the LDS Church's Family History Library have put a damper on the July 15 event at the state Capitol."Anyone who is even remotely in the public eye doesn't want to be even a million miles from this event," said Sheryl Salmon, program manager of adult day treatment at Valley Mental Health. "We've had a decreased community response this year, which is sad. People who were willing to attend briefly in past years -- some politicians and local celebrities -- have said, 'No, this is not the year to do this.' "

Organizers are being turned down by businesses that traditionally have donated food, gift certificates and door prizes, Salmon said. "Tuxedos are real hard to come by right now, whereas it was easy before. We're just having to make a whole lot more calls this year.

"These incidents that have occurred certainly have been tragic, but they are certainly not the norm," she continued.

There has long been a stigma associated with mental illness. Despite public education, advances in medications and successful treatments, there is still a perception in society that mental illness is the fault of the person who suffers from it, said Michael Stevens, clinical director at Valley Mental Health.

And when the public hears of incidents such as the shootings this year, that stigma is exacerbated, and people begin associating violence with mental illness -- when in fact, people with a chemical imbalance pose more of a threat to themselves than to others, particularly when they stop taking their medication, Stevens said.

"If somebody has a psychotic illness, and if it is treated, there is little likelihood that person will be any more violent than anyone else in the population," he said.

Studies have shown that even when mentally ill people stop taking medication, the likelihood they will be threatening or exhibit violent behavior "is very, very small," he said.

Compared with risks associated with drug abuse, male gender, young age and poverty, people with mental illness have a much lower risk of violent behavior, according to the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City.

In Utah, there are nearly 100,000 people diagnosed with a mental disorder, and Valley Mental Health treats about 20,000 annually.

Salmon is particularly upset about declining support for the prom because this is a reward patients look forward to for all their hard work in learning to cope with their illnesses.

"These people are my heroes because I see the struggles they go through every day," she said. "To me a hero is more than someone who goes through a one-time event and rises to the occasion. I see these people rise to the occasion every single day."