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Views of the Weird

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Dear Mr. Chuck Shepherd:

I am writing to express my objection to an item I read in your column in the December 2, 1994, issue of the Reader. I regularly read your column [News of the Weird] and usually enjoy it, but I must express how offended I am at "The Weirdo-American Community" entry. In it you report on an incident in which a man assaulted a judge in Pittsburgh, biting him in the face. In itself this certainly is an unusual event, as I would expect to see in your column. But my protest comes because you also note that the assailant said "he didn't understand what he was doing because he was hearing voices." This is where the story stops being absurd, becomes quite tragic for the assailant as well as the judge, and your reporting of it becomes damaging.

As you likely are aware, hearing voices (auditory hallucinations) is one of the most common and incapacitating symptoms of some severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. The voices can occur in the form of commands which an individual may not be able to distinguish from reality, to "disobey" or to ignore. Hearing voices can be experienced as extremely frightening and torturous to an individual with this symptom. I have seen people suffering from this, and my understanding is that it can be as painful and debilitating as any other severe, chronic illness. Stigma, ridicule and public fear only increase the pain and suffering of these individuals.

Command hallucinations about inflicting harm on someone are frequently self-directed if acted upon, leading a person to injure him/herself or attempt suicide. They can lead to a person harming someone else, but this is rare, and unfortunately was the case in the story you reported. Stories like this can lead the public to generalize that a person with mental illness is dangerous, which really is not the case. In fact, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of violence and crime than to perpetrate it.

The inclusion of this segment in your column promotes the stigmatization of persons with mental illness as "weird" and dangerous. This is underscored by your use of the heading "The Weirdo-American Community," which seems to indicate that you find this man more "weird" than any other person you reported on in your column. There is far too much already present in daily media to reinforce the typecast image of the mentally ill as weird and dangerous. I am very offended by your corroboration of this depiction. I feel you have insulted the dignity of persons with mental illness and hindered the efforts of those who work to stop such stigmatization.

Janice McGeehan

N. Kenmore

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