Monday, December 17, 2012

The horror in Connecticut is a call to action

The atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut has been on my mind all weekend, as I'm sure it's been on yours.

I'm furious with the 'gun control' advocates for how they've exploited this tragedy.

No, I can't imagine who needs to have so many weapons in their own house, legal or not, registered or not. I certainly can't imagine why any normal person would feel the need to have a semiautomatic rifle in the house. What threat requires this kind of firepower? Zombies?

But what happened in Newtown, and what happened in Aurora, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, and Columbine, Colorado and at Virginia Tech and at Northern Illinois University and in Arizona to Congresswoman Giffords -- these tragedies have something in common besides guns: The shooters were all crazy people.

No normal person, no matter how angry, grabs an automatic rifle and shoots little children multiple times. Gun control advocates tell us that having guns around will increase crime because people have a lethal outlet when they lose their temper. But the Newtown shooter did not lose his temper. He seems to have planned this horror, just as James Eagan Holmes seems to have meticulously planned his murderous spree in Aurora, Colorado and Cho Seung-Hui seems to have planned his attacks at Virginia Tech.

Why did this happen? Why does it happen again and again?

I have what I think is an answer: We've stopped treating crazy people in this country.

Mental hospitals were bad places, we were told, and perhaps they were. But when the mental hospitals closed, where did people go for help?

In the mid-80s it was believed that pills were in the pipeline to solve any number of psychiatric ills. So closing the nation's mental hospitals didn't necessarily seem irresponsible: People just had to show up for their lithium (or whatever) and then they could function just like anyone else.

And maybe some did. But the pills didn't work for everyone. Some didn't work at all. And persons who needed treatment wound up on the streets -- the explosion of the "Homeless Problem" -- or in prison. And although the treatment had failed the hospitals did not reopen.

We're worried about 'privacy' for persons facing mental illness -- to the point where we seem to have stopped worrying about who might be harmed as a result. But, left entirely to their own devices, the mentally ill are getting into trouble.

Today, according to a 2011 NPR report, "More Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than in hospitals or treatment centers. In fact, the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country are jails: Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City and Cook County Jail in Illinois."

And the trend of reducing the availability of help for persons not yet charged with a crime is continuing: We're closing (or have closed) several outpatient mental health clinics here in Chicago.

In 2006, the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics was warning Americans that
  • Nearly a quarter of both State prisoners and jail inmates who had a mental health problem, compared to a fifth of those without, had served 3 or more prior incarcerations.
  • Female inmates had higher rates of mental health problems than male inmates (State prisons: 73% of females and 55% of males; Federal prisons: 61% of females and 44% of males; local jails: 75% of females and 63% of males).
  • Over 1 in 3 State prisoners, 1 in 4 Federal prisoners, and 1 in 6 jail inmates who had a mental health problem had received treatment since admission.
(But by 2011, the Bureau didn't even mention the mental health of American prisoners. You can link to the 2011 report through this webpage.)

I read a heart-breaking blog post over the weekend -- it's been widely republished -- you may have seen it, too -- written by the mother of a 13 year old boy with mental issues. He's very intelligent, usually charming, but -- too often -- and with no predictable warning, he turns sullen, even violent. As he gets bigger, stronger, older, she gets more afraid. She's been 'counseled' to let him commit a crime -- because that's the only way they can hope to get treatment for his issues.

I don't know who this woman is, but her story could be my own sister's. Her sons, my nephews, both have mental issues, and one has a history of violence. And as soon as the young man with the violence issues turned 18, and he was free to do so, he was able to sign himself out of the place where my sister had sweat blood to get him help. And he signed out.

Holmes in Colorado, Cho Seung-Hui in Virginia, Jared Loughner in Arizona -- all were asked to leave their schools because they were disruptive. They were scaring people.

We treat mental illness in this country by asking the person with issues to kindly go away.

Sometimes they do go -- off into the parks or forest preserves. After the Arizona tragedy I wrote about a couple of places near my home which 'housed' some of these unfortunates. This weekend, when I was out and about on errands I looked at where I'd seen these lean-to's before. They're gone now. Perhaps their denizens are gone as well. They may well have died. It's a hard life living in the forest preserve.

But sometimes they don't go. In well-off families, maybe they are kept as well as the family can -- or in Adam Lanza's case, as well his mother could keep him, at least until he shot her in the head with her own guns. Sometimes instead of going off to the woods where we can ignore them, or to the sidewalks, where we can step around them, they go into schools or malls or theaters with guns. And they call us, as a society, to account.

I'm not advocating locking up every socially awkward, quiet kid (I'd probably have been swept up myself). But we need to start getting help to people who need help -- whose families ask (beg!) for help -- through means other than the criminal justice system. We need to treat people with problems because, if we don't, we can't ever hope to identify those whose problems are endangering others. Maybe we need to reopen a mental hospital or two. Maybe we need to require people to stay there, even when they don't want to. Even if they're not 'nice' places -- because they surely must be nicer than prison or sleeping under a viaduct.

I don't think there's any question: If there was a complete, total, enforceable ban on assault rifles, Mr. Lanza would have had to use different weapons to further his murderous scheme. But wouldn't he still have had that same murderous scheme? With less exotic weapons, perhaps, he might not have been able to kill nearly so many before the police closed in and he killed himself. But are we to seriously argue that it would be somehow 'better' if he'd only killed 15 or 12 or 'only' five?

We could ban assault rifles, handguns, BB guns, forks, knives, spoons and sharpened sticks, and we will still have crazy people attacking innocents unless we seriously confront the way we treat mentally ill people in this country.

President Obama says we can do better than this. And we can. And we can begin by no longer pretending that ignoring the mentally ill is acceptable.

1 comment:

Jeni said...

Amen! One small way to start is to try to find ways to teach people about mental illness and show how it doesn't always surface as a mental health problem but rather, often it appears to be a physical health issue that doesn't disappear because it's not receiving the needed treatment. And becoming accepting of those who deal with these issues by working to get rid of the stigmas many still carry about mental health problems. Acceptance and caring can and does often go a long way in helping many who cope with these problems daily whether the person is the patient or family member. Just one small way to begin a much needed change of action and operation, which as you proved quite well, is extremely needed!