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Why Andrew Yang's Comments On Mental Illness Are Dangerous, According To An Expert

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Andrew Yang

Another day on the New York mayoral campaign trail and Democratic forerunner Andrew Yang is making more stigmatizing comments about mental illness.

Yang’s comments at Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate stood out for all the wrong reasons as he reflected on how best to address homelessness and mental health issues in New York City.

Andrew Yang’s comments belie a disturbing ignorance about people with mental illnesses.

“Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighbors,” Yang began before adding, “We owe our people and our families better than this.”

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This is not the first time Yang has taken a disparaging stance on those dealing with mental illness.

Past comments include recommending “firmer action” and favoring more policing over providing better access to mental health resources.

We asked New York-based psychotherapist Christine Vargo to break down the issues with some of Yang’s comments and the stigmatization they entail.

Yang assumes people with mental illnesses are dangerous.

In May, Yang suggested increased policing as a solution to the city’s mental health crisis.

“[I]f you have someone who is mentally ill on the subway, you’re going to need a police officer at least present,” he said.

The comment makes the inaccurate assumption that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be violent, which studies have proven to be untrue.

In fact, people with mental illnesses are 10 times more likely victims of violent crime than the general population.

“What’s concerning about the narrative that Individuals with mental health problems are inherently dangerous to society is the complete lack of understanding about mental health and the stigma that continues to be associated with the message,” Vargo tells us.

Yang’s comments lack compassion towards those living with mental illness and promote a dangerous idea that these people are to be feared and policed.

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Yang gives police officers more credit than he does trained mental health professionals.

People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be fatally shot during a police encounter than the general population.

And yet, to these May statements Yang added, “If you just send in a psychologist or a therapist, they’re going to struggle.”

“I think that police are going to drive our ability of what’s going on in our streets and subway," he said. 'We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”

This statement also appears to be ill-informed. Suggesting that a New York police officer with six months of training is better equipped to deal with people in a mental health crisis than mental health professionals with several years of education and training is inaccurate at best.

“Having the capacity to witness and assess someone’s current level of lucidity are skills mental health professionals are explicitly trained to develop,” Vargo says. “Conversely, police officers are trained to make quick judgments and react.”

“We’ve seen too many incidents of police officers intervening with devastating outcomes because they reacted poorly without time to fully assess the situation.”

Yang creates an "us versus them" mentality regarding people with mental illnesses.

In Wednesday’s debate, Yang made a point to separate people with mental illnesses when discussing the “rights” of the general population.

“Yes, mentally ill people have rights, but you know who else have rights? We do! The people and families of the city,” Yang said.

What Yang failed to acknowledge is who is included in his version of “we.”

Mental illness affects 1 in 5 people in the U.S. each year, and homeless people with mental illness on the subways are no less deserving of care than those in homes that can afford access.

People with mental illnesses are the “people and families of the city” he speaks of. Let's hope he figures that out.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.