Radio, TV Stations Often Deal With Mentally Ill Callers, Visitors

Dec. 15, 1999

Radio, TV Stations Often Deal With Mentally Ill Callers, Visitors

Study Results Indicate Inadequate Treatment Availability

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Radio and television personnel have been often threatened by individuals with severe mental illnesses who claim the station is talking about them or sending voices into their heads, a study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center and Public Citizen?s Health Research Group has found. These individuals have on occasion threatened or attempted to harm station workers.

“The frequency with which this occurs is the consequence of permitting more than 2.5 million mentally ill Americans to go untreated at any given time,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, president of the board of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the legal and practical barriers to the treatment of seriously mentally ill Americans. “For some stations, dealing with the mentally ill is a part of their daily workload.”

In the study, 813 radio and television stations in the 60 largest U.S. media markets were sent two-page questionnaires regarding the frequency and nature of contacts with individuals with severe mental illnesses. Of the 259 stations that responded, 123 (48 percent) reported receiving a telephone call, letter, fax or e-mail from an individual asking that the station stop talking about him or her, or stop sending voices to his or her head.

The stations reported 3,155 communications with 284 individuals in the previous year. A person in Ohio complained that a television anchorwoman was using a pencil to send her messages. A New York woman said she thought a television station was using her body to transmit signals.

Forty-seven stations reported that individuals had threatened to harm station workers, and at 13 stations they came to the station and tried. In Illinois, a youth with a gun went to a radio station after calling to say that the station?s equipment was reading his mind. An Oklahoma television station was visited by a person who appeared at the employee entrance with a gun. In Oregon, a radio station personality found notes and items taped to her van by someone who had harassed her for years. In Utah, a woman came to a television station with a 9 mm gun that she fired, killing a young mother and wounding a man.

In the Utah incident, the alleged assailant had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1996 she had gone to a different station with a butcher knife, after which she went to mandatory counseling. However, when the counseling ended, she was not required to continue taking her medication or even continue seeing a doctor.

“Mentally ill individuals who receive treatment are no more dangerous than anyone else,” said Dr. Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen?s Health Research Group. “It is the small number of people who aren?t being treated who cause the majority of problems, such as the threats documented in this report.”

Studies have shown that more than 2.5 million Americans with severe mental illness are not receiving treatment at any given time. It is estimated that a third of the homeless population — approximately 150,000 people — are severely mentally ill. A U.S. Department of Justice study found that 16 percent of inmates at local jails and state prisons are mentally ill. For many who are ill, the failure to take medication needed to control their symptoms is a direct cause of their being homeless, incarcerated or violent.

The present study offers 12 recommendations for how station personnel can deal with mentally ill callers and visitors. These include providing all station personnel with information on how to deal with threats by phone or in person, installing bullet-proof glass to protect on-air personnel, installing electronic door-opening devices, speaking slowly and directly when confronted by a mentally ill person, and seeking a court restraining order in response to threatening behavior.

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