Monday, September 24, 2007

Oprah on bipolar and violence

Andrea Petrosky killed her child. On The Oprah Show today, she talks about it, and about her bipolar disorder.

Petrosky is one in a long line of mothers whose untreated or wrongly treated severe mental illness had such a sickening result. In fact, of children killed by a parent, 15.8 percent of defendants had a history of untreated mental illness.

What she has to say about it sounds very familiar.

Andrea says the person who killed her son "wasn't me. It wasn't the real me. It was a very sick me, because I would never hurt him. Never," she says.
Her voice is an eerie echo of many who have been through similar circumstances. Like Naomi Gaines, who killed her 14-month old twins.

"I know how I was feeling that day. I know I was not the same Naomi who got up with my kids a million times before and fed them and bathed them and walked them and breast-fed them and cared for them," she says. "I wasn't that same person. So I know that I would never hurt them if I had had my sanity."
It isn’t the disease that leads to violence, it is the lack of timely and effective treatment for that disease.

People with severe psychiatric disorders are not more dangerous than the general population - if they are being treated. But without treatment, some commit acts of violence because of their delusions and hallucinations. Many of the cases in the news eventually uncover the fact that the person who killed their child was not taking medication. And research shows that the most common reason that people with severe mental illness refuse treatment is because they are too sick to realize they need treatment.

Don’t believe the hype you will hear today from some in the mental health community – that these cases are extremely rare. In Texas just last week, Alysha Green doused her three-, five-, and seven-year old daughters with gasoline and lit them on fire. The three-year-old has since died. Alysha’s husband says his wife had a history of mental illness with a past diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She was prescribed medication. She stopped taking her medication and, her husband reported, her behavior deteriorated in the three weeks prior to the tragedy. That same week, Helen Kirk was found insane in her murder trial in Massachusetts – she told police she believed her son Justin was “the devil” after she strangled him.

Oprah also talks to General Hospital star Maurice Benard and actress Jenifer Lewis from their perspectives as people with bipolar disorder. Benard returns to the issue of violence when he recounts what happened one evening when he was off medication.

“I started yelling. And I told [my wife] if she didn't stop [crying], that I was going to kill her—in my mind I didn't believe I would."
As much as we don’t want it to be true, violent behavior is one of the consequences of failing to treat. Even NIMH gets that now.

Oprah doesn’t delve into the concept of assisted outpatient treatment, which is too bad. The obvious question after a show like this is “how can we help people before they get so sick?” Maybe in a future show, they will include the perspectives of so many who can attest to the importance and value of earlier intervention.

Until then, we call this a good beginning.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,