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letter to canberra times

Letter to editor: mental illness
and education

Letters editor Canberra Times
By email:

Dear Editor

I hesitate to dignify with a response the second-hand article which the
Canberra Times retailed yesterday, calling for discrimination in education
against people with a mental illness on the basis of presumed dangerousness
("Entrance exams should test a student's mental suitability", 6 September).
The article, referring to "bizarre inscriptions" and "gibberish", itself
fitted those descriptions very well. I hope the rights to reprint this
article did not cost the Canberra Times as much in money as in reputation.

I am responding nonetheless, because it is very important for me to state
that the greatest barriers faced by people with mental illnesses are often
those caused by thoughtless prejudice and myth making.

For the record, 1 in every 5 Australians experiences a form of mental
illness throughout their lives, 95% of whom fully recover. No higher rate
or risk of violence or dangerousness has ever been demonstrated among
people with a mental illness as a group than among the population in general.
Bodies such as the American Psychiatric Association have repeatedly disclaimed
any professional ability to predict dangerousness on the basis of illness
rather than prior behaviour.

It is all too convenient for less meticulous journalists to refer to
a "mad" or "deranged" perpetrator of acts of violence or harassment, rather
than look for real causes in, for example, access to weapons in the United
States as per the example used, or an inability to accept women, or people
with different colour skin or religion, as equals.

Laws such as our federal Disability Discrimination Act give people with
psychiatric or other disabilities no more right than anyone else to behave
in violent or threatening ways. The law does, rightly, give all people
with disabilities a right to freedom from arbitrary and ill informed exclusion
such as urged by your article. I do hope in future greater discretion
and less offence will be the outcome when staff of the Canberra Times
are trying to fill space on a slow news day.

Federal A/g Disability Discrimination Commissioner
7 September 2000