Flawed Vetting System, Not Schizophrenia, Real Issue Behind Mandela Memorial ‘Fake’ Signer Fiasco

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fake interpreter nelson mandela memorial

Sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie, who was interpreting at the memorial service of late former president Nelson Mandela speaks at his home in Bramfischerville, South Africa Wednesday Dec. 11, 2013. The man accused of faking sign interpretation next to world leaders at Nelson Mandela’s memorial told a local newspaper that he was hallucinating and hearing voices. Thamsanqa Jantjie did describe his qualifications for being a sign language interpreter, but told The Star he works for an interpreting company that paid him $85 for interpreting Tuesday’s event. He told Radio 702 Thursday he’s receiving treatment for schizophrenia and had an episode while on stage. (AP Photo/Itumeleng English)

After news outlets around the world reported that the sign interpreter during Nelson Mandela‘s memorial service was faking his interpretations, we are now hearing from the man in question that he suffers from schizophrenia and was experiencing hallucinations while on stage Tuesday. 

In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, Thamsanqa Jantjie said that he began seeing angels enter the stadium as he was signing during the memorial and realized there was a problem but was too scared to react. “I was in a very difficult position,” he added. “And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there was armed police around me. If I start panicking I’ll start being a problem. I have to deal with this in a manner so that I mustn’t embarrass my country.”

If this is true, Jantjie needs help–not the world’s ridicule.

To be sure, I have no idea if Jantjie is telling the truth, but when discussing schizophrenia, we must be sure not to make blanketed judgements and assumptions over whether or not people harbor a propensity for violence based solely on their mental illnesses. While Jantjie did admit during the interview that he has been violent in the past, we do not know for sure if his violence was motivated by a lack of medical treatment or criminal intent. In either case, it is now clear that he should not have been standing near dignitaries–including President Barack Obama– after admitting that he sometimes reacts violently during his hallucinations.

And while I am not a medical professional, Jantjie’s insistence that he did a great job after signing experts around the world are clearly saying the opposite makes one wonder if he is currently in a proper state of mind. (He needs to stop granting interviews, that’s for sure) That said, we should acknowledge that Jantjie’s violent past does not reflect the majority of people who have been diagnosed with the schizophrenia–at least here in the United States.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that, of the 1 percent of Americans diagnosed schizophrenia, most are rarely violent. Moreover, more than 26 percent of the American population suffers from some form of mental illness but between 92 and 96 percent of them are not prone to violence.

So far, most news outlets have responsibly focused Jantjie’s story on safety and a vetting system in South African’s government that clearly did not work. But my concern is that social media conversations may splinter into uninformed Twitter chats and Facebook threads that unfairly assume people with mental illnesses are automatically violent, something that research shows is not true at all. If someone with a mental illness does not have a history of violence, their illness should not bar them from performing his or her trade.

Even around dignitaries.

As I write this post, I reflect on statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services that reveal only 30 percent of African-Americans who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are seeking counseling. Fear of how their employers, friends and family may respond often keep far too many African-Americans from seeking the help they need. And so does banter on social media and uninformed blogging about issues such as the Jantjie’s claim of having a mental illness.

So far, numerous sign language experts in South Africa claim that Jantjie has a history of delivering unintelligible interpretation, which may or may not be true. And we do not know for sure the full extent of Jantjie’s medical history and whether or not he has consistently sought treatment to deal with his mental illness. A thorough investigation will address the aforementioned issues.

But as this story unfolds, those who suffer from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses should not have to defend their dignity by fighting off stereotypes because someone was put on a world stage he had no business being on as a result of a broken vetting system.

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