Mental Illness

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Mental Illness

Postby Butters » December 21st, 2012, 5:09 pm

With all the focus we've had on guns since the shooting, I have grown very frustrated that this is occupied so much of the discussion, when I believe that mental illness is a huge factor in these rampage shootings. Encouragingly, I have heard some attention paid to it, but far less than guns. Since the terrible mass murder, I have heard three stories that I think illustrate how overlooked mental illness is as an issue.

1. When it was reported that the murderer had Asperger's Syndrome, I wondered what my brother's reaction would be; he has Asperger's himself. I was expecting him to lament that now people like himself may be looked at differently. Instead, he told me that his mind immediately went to an experience he had a few years ago. He was in a MySpace group for people with Asperger's (back when people used MySpace). He had hoped to find kindred spirits to share experiences with. Depressingly, the people he encountered fell into two categories. Some were despairing, bereft of any hope that they could ever live a happy life. The others were very angry, insisting that there wasn't actually anything wrong with them; they seemed to believe that having a mental disorder that makes it difficult to relate to and understand other people was no more something to be treated than left-handedness. In this group was a collection of people who were in utter despair and unable to find help to move their lives forward, and people who angrily refused to acknowledge that they needed help. Though I've heard news commentators insist that Asperger's doesn't cause violence (and it statistically does not), Jacob was not the least bit surprised that a person who fit into one of the two categories he had encountered would be capable of such an act. Whereas commentators expressed shock, it made perfect sense to him. These people are in need of help, and they either cannot find it or are refusing it. And if it can happen with a relatively benign disorder such as Asperger's Syndrome, I can only imagine the ordeal for people with more serious problems.

2. I listen to the Dennis Prager Show daily. He had a caller this week, a woman who had adopted a Russian child with her husband. The boy was very troubled, and was violent, terrorizing their family. When they sought help, they were repeatedly blamed for his problems, with experts telling them that they were simply bad parents, not showing him enough or not teaching him correct discipline. Eventually, as he posed an actual physical threat to their other children, they made the difficult decision to give him up and put him in the foster care system. This boy then, at age fifteen, took a gun to school and proceeded to try and murder his classmates. Fortunately, he was ignorant enough to have put the wrong bullets in the gun, and it did not fire. But here you have a family that sought, for years, to get help for their very dangerously troubled son, and the only response they got was that it was their own fault for being crummy parents. If this is the sort of response we give people who try to get help for troubled children, it should be no surprise when these children end up perpetration atrocities on society.

3. The third story is from NPR. A man had a son who began to develop mental problems in college, and soon he was not functional at all. He took his son to a mental hospital, and sat in the building for four hours while they evaluated him. They then came back and told him that they could nothing; his son was not obviously imminently dangerous, and he did not want to be there. When the man explained that his son had lost any contact with reality, the staff told him that he was absolutely right, but that being insane wasn't grounds for involuntary committment, only being a physical threat was. He was told to bring his son back if he attempted to harm anyone. He took his son home, and watched in anguish for several days while he sat around wearing foil on his head because he thought the CIA was reading his mind. One night, the son left the house, broke into a neighbor's home, and started taking a bubble bath. The man was called to go to the mental hospital where his son was being evaluated. A police officer met him before he went in, and told him that unless he went inside and told the psychiatrist that his son had tried to kill him, his son would not receive treatment but would instead go to prison. He told the officer that his son had not tried to harm anyone. The officer, who seemed to be a genuinely good man from the story, repeated that his son would rot in prison instead of getting the help he needed unless he reported that his son had tried to kill him. So he went in and lied, and his son was committed to get the help he needed. His insurance company called the next day and informed him that they were not going to pay for his commitment, because they believed it was unnecessary. Fortunately, he happened to personally know Mike Wallace, who called the insurance company and asked why they were refusing to treat such a terribly disturbed person. They changed their mind and paid for it, but if he hadn't known a famous journalist, his son would have been screwed over once again.

We have terrible attitudes about this as a society. We should not be slinging accusations at people who are trying to get their loved ones help. And why the #$%#% do we have such a high bar to commit people? The NPR story explained that we have done away with 95% of inpatient beds at mental hospitals in the last fifty years. I understand that we have to respect civil liberties, that we don't want lock up people for just being oddballs. But why is the only standard in many places for involuntary commitment physical danger? Surely we can agree that, if a guy is wearing a tinfoil hat and thinks his mind is being read, he needs help even if he says he doesn't want it. How about expanding involuntary commitment for, say, people who have demonstrably lost touch with reality, or people who do terribly self-destructive things, like choosing to live on the streets when they have other options (and there are many homeless people, like the shoe guy, who have family who have tried to help them but they are compelled by their own demons to make decisions that destroy their lives).

I think Dean Koontz described these people well in one his novels, in which a character laments that we closed down mental institutions and replaced them with basically nothing. He found these disturbed people to be like zombies, an army of the living dead. It is not compassionate to let people wallow in their mental illness like a hog in mud. It's cruel to let people wander around reacting to phantoms from their own imaginations, to be disconnected from reality, or to live on the streets in filth. It's both cruel and dangerous when people grow concerned about their loved ones, and are rebuffed when they seek help for them.

And yes, this is an area where we should spend far more money. By not providing help, we're robbing these people of their basic human dignity. And, in many cases, we're robbing others of security and safety, as well.
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