Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness

By Otto F. Wahl | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Madness, Madness Everywhere

Not long ago I attended a zoning board meeting in suburban Northern Virginia, where I live. The issue being considered was the proposed establishment of a group home for six adult females with mental illness. I was there to testify on behalf of the group home as an affordable housing alternative that would enable these women to leave the hospital and return to their communities. Others from the community were there, as is often the case with group home hearings, to oppose the residence, and their arguments against establishment of the home were sometimes quite remarkable. One longtime resident observed that the neighborhood had many elderly citizens and many children and that, therefore, it would be inappropriate to place psychiatric patients there. Her implication was that both young and old residents of the community would be vulnerable to the dangers mentally disabled neighbors would pose. A similar sentiment was expressed by a man who said simply that the home should not come to his neighborhood "because I'm small" (referring, I assume, to his short stature); being a small person, he suggested, meant that he would not be able to defend himself well. Still another spokesperson argued that the neighborhood was unsuitable for psychiatric patients because it was near a very busy intersection and that the former patients would have difficulty crossing the streets safely.

It was clear that the community members' acceptance of or resistance to the proposed group home was based on their (often inaccurate) ideas about mental illness. They appeared to see people with mental

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