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Voices / Letters from readers

Columnist clarifies points about mental illness

I’m writing in response to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s letter [The Commons, Feb. 23] regarding my recent column, “High Noon in the OK Corral,” in which I referred to deinstitutionalized people suffering from mental health issues.  I am grateful to Ms. Cohen-Rottenberg for her thoughtful feedback.  Her letter added balance to my commentary and shined light on some things I’d hoped were implicit.

I would like to offer clarification on two points she made. 

First, I never intended to “decry the movement toward deinstitutionalization;” indeed, it’s an issue I worked on directly at the time.  Nor would I ever knowingly “demonize” or stereotype people with serious mental illness; I certainly know that people suffering from depression and other serious mental illnesses are not “deranged or dangerous.”

It might help to know that I’ve had a great deal of experience living with and caring deeply about family members who have suffered from severe mental illness.  My mother was institutionalized for what was then called “manic depression” for much of her adult life, and there have been two suicides in our family.  Thus, I fully appreciate the stigma attached to mental illness.

The point I wanted to make (keeping word count in mind) was that for those relatively few mentally ill people who can rightfully be called “criminally insane” because of their proclivity towards violence, deinstitutionalization without proper alternative support systems resulted, in some instances, in crimes being committed, sometimes with guns.

Additionally, in using the phrase “poor souls” I never intended to be patronizing or pitying.  I used those (perhaps ill-chosen) words to convey what I hoped was a sense of compassion for the suffering of the mentally ill, much as I would for someone suffering from a painful and possibly terminal disease.

If my language in the commentary was “frightening” or misleading, I apologize.  I hope readers know that I try to write respectfully using carefully chosen words.  I appreciate hearing from them when I fall short.

Elayne Clift
Saxtons River

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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