State report portrays people with mental illness as violent

This article is excerpted from ENVOY, February 1994.


The state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) published a report on its study of assaults on staff at the state psychiatric hospitals.  While the purpose of the study was to examine methods to reduce workers compensation claims, the result was a one-sided report of questionable validity that contributes to the wrongful stereotyping of people with mental illness.

Although the report brought an important issue to the forefront, many were offended by the portrayal of staff as victims and patients as perpetrators, without any discussion of individual staff responsibility as professional health care workers towards a captive population in ill-health or the responsibility of hospital administration to provide a therapeutic, patient-friendly setting in which patient scan recuperate in which staff can work productively.

The press release that L&I distributed to the media in early January, promoting the finds of its study, further perpetuated the violent stereotype of people with mental illness.

WPAS Staff Attorney/Policy Analyst Elizabeth Stanhope submitted comments to the Legislature on January 26, 1994, in order to provide a more complete picture of confrontations between staff and patients at the state psychiatric hospitals.  She criticized the report for its lack of patient input, the use of questionable data, and the absence of uniform definitions for subjective terms such as assault, violence and aggression.

Although the researchers themselves admit this absence of a uniform definition for “assault” makes the data sources unreliable, Stanhope noted that this disclaimer does not accompany the illustrative charts and did not appear in the press release from which the media widely quoted.

The word “assault,” commonly understood to mean intentional violent contact, is used in the report to cover a much wider range of actions.  The “violence,” also not defined in the report, seems to include patient attacks against staff, in self-defense or otherwise, and any physical action on the part of a patient during a take-down or restraint procedure.

The report recommendations about the issue are naively based on the perception that patients are solely responsible for creating situations in which assault occurs and that staff are blameless.  WPAS advised that attention should be paid t6o the causes of conflict, such as restrictions on smoking, the use of restraints and seclusion, staff attitude towards patients, and punitive measures.

WPAS advised the legislature that administration, staff and patients need to work cooperatively to develop policies which will create a calm, therapeutic, supportive atmosphere for treatment.  While the report contained some valuable recommendations for training and staffing levels, WPAS also proposed training for the personnel department of the hospitals on how to recognize and test potentially abuse job applicants.

People with a mental illness are no more violent than the rest of society.  It is reports such as this one, and its accompanying press release that contribute to wrongful stereotyping of people with mental illness.  For more information WPAS’s comments to the Legislature, contact WPAS.

*Editor's Note: Disability Rights Washington was formerly known as Washington Protection and Advocacy System.

ENVOY Credits

ENVOY Editor:  Nicole Elger
ENVOY Staff Contributors:  Laura Allen, Sandy Macdonald, Gillian Maguire, Betty Schwieterman, Mike Smith, Elizabeth Stanhope, Mark Stroh, Thomaszine Weathersby

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