At the age of 8, I remember going past our local psychiatric hospital in the car with some friends. I remember learning all about the "violent loonies" that lived there. I was told that many people were in there for harming others and were "a danger to society". From that day, I was scared of that psychiatric hospital.
When I turned 10, I was told that one of the residents from the psychiatric hospital had escaped. I was warned to stay away from the area in order to remain safe. I was told that, if I came into contact with the escaped resident, they might hurt me or, worse yet, kill me. So, I stayed away.
A year later, I learnt that a man who lived up the road had killed his best friend. "He has schizophrenia. He chopped his friend's head off because he's crazy," I was told. "They shouldn't let people with his illness out in public." After that day, I began to fear everybody with schizophrenia, worried that if I came across them, I too would be beheaded.
As I hit my teenage years, I began to struggle with mental health issues.
Each night, from the age of 13 to 15, I grabbed hold of the kitchen knife in order to inflict pain. However, my victim was never my friends or my family or even complete strangers. The only person I ever showed violence to was myself.
I must be an exception, right? Surely most people who are mentally unwell want to hurt others and not themselves?
Wrong. If you believe that, you couldn't be further from the truth. Statistics show that the majority of people who are mentally unstable are a much bigger threat to themselves than to anybody else. In fact, compared to the general population, those with mental illnesses are much less likely to be violent towards others.
But, we don't learn that, do we? When was the last time you were taught how harmless mentally ill people were?
I mean, can you remember the last time you saw a story about a white male committing a mass murder where mental illness wasn't used as an explanation for their behaviour? Or what about the last time a mass shooting was covered without mentally ill people being used as scapegoats? I know I certainly can't.
It has to stop. If we want to encourage people to seek help and speak up about their mental health issues, we need to stop associating violence with mental illness.
You only have to look back at last week's Oregon shooting to see the awful effects that violent killing sprees have on the stigma surrounding mental health. When the killings were announced, instead of focussing on America's gun laws, the press immediately drew attention to the fact that the gunman was mentally ill.
There was no evidence that this was the case: there was no note from a medical professional; no proof of admittance to a psychiatric hospital, and no accounts from those who knew him that linked him to any mental illness. Yet, within hours of the story emerging, instead of focussing on the country's lax gun laws that were largely responsible for the attack, the media's main focus was on portraying the gunman as a mentally ill man, and consequently demonising those with mental illnesses.
When Obama made a speech highlighting that the main reason for the attack was lack of gun control, not mental illness (pointing out that every country has people who suffer from mental illnesses, yet none of these have seen 294 mass shootings this year so far) the majority of media outlets chose not to listen. It only took for me to flick on my TV to learn that all mentally ill people were dangerous, and likely to go out and shoot people. A simple search online led to me discovering that the problem was not guns themselves, but the fact that mentally ill people could get their hands on these weapons.
Instead of holding America's gun laws accountable, the media chose to blame vulnerable members in society. We condone the actions of Hitler, and other oppressive leaders who picked on the weak to gain power, but are people who blame these vulnerable members of society for violent acts really any better?
We need to change this. Ideally, we need the media culprits who hold those with mental illness responsible for every violent crime to take a step back and realise their wrongdoings. However, we also need to take responsibility ourselves. We need to not be swept in by the wrongful claims made by some media outlets. If we hear people repeating these claims that they've heard about mental illness and violence, we need to challenge their views, and educate them.
This week, World Mental Health Day is taking place and I plead with you that instead of ignoring the day, or using it as a day to further victimise those who are already drowning in society's stigma, you use the day to teach others. You use the day to tell others that mentally ill people aren't bad people. They aren't "violent loonies". Being ill certainly does not make them a "threat to society" but, instead, quite the opposite.