It’s easy to just not see what we don’t like, don’t agree with, don’t want to acknowledge, don’t want to admit, or don’t want to pay for. In America right now, I think we are in a state of massive denial about our approach to mental illness.
Looking Behind the News
When I watched the news broadcasts about mass shootings from Virginia Tech to Aurora to Newtown, I looked behind the killers to see parents in great distress. They knew their son was ill: not right, disturbed, not himself, strange, unpredictable, possibly dangerous. My heart went out to them. They were struggling to cope with that behavior and figure out what to do, how to help their son while protecting the rest of the family from his behavior—and doing it pretty much on their own. Today, very little help is available to people who need to deal with mentally disturbed family members.
Exactly how little there is has been documented in an article in the June issue of Mother Jones by Mac McClelland entitled, “Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin.” It’s a long article, but riveting. Also very frightening.
Declining Resources for Treating Mental Illness
Resources for treatment of mental illness in America have been declining since 1963, two years after a joint commission of the American Medical and American Psychiatric associations recommended removing the mentally ill from large institutions and mainstreaming them into society. Patients were supposed to receive outpatient care from community services in local facilities such as half-way houses. It sounded like a good solution to folks on the left, who believed that people with mental problems “should not be committed, medicated, or treated against their will unless they’re a danger to themselves or to others.” It sounded great to folks on the right who wanted to reduce the size of government and lower everyone’s taxes.
But a funny thing happened on the way to mainstream utopia: states opened the doors of their mental hospitals a lot faster than anyone expected and the community resources to replace them were never hired, built, or funded.
Where Do They Go?
It’s ironic that Newtown, Connecticut was once the location of Fairfield Hills State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that housed 4,000 patients–and also employed 20 doctors, 50 nurses and 100 other employees. It was created in 1931 due to overcrowding at two other state hospitals and closed in December, 1995.
Denying Mental Illness
What makes it worse is that the statistics are not good for mental patients in police custody. Law enforcement officers are, after all, not educated, trained or equipped to handle the mentally ill. They aren’t doctors or social workers. They have guns, not psycho-active drugs.
So parents try to keep the lid on, struggling harder and harder every day until things finally blow up. What happens next is something Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey calls, “a predictable tragedy.” It’s a term he applies to, “the Gabrielle Giffords shooting the Virginia Tech massacre, the Aurora movie theater shooting, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and dozens of other recent homicides, some of them famous mass killings or subway platform shovings, but many of them less publicized.” Dr. Torrey estimates—conservatively—that 10% of US homicides are committed by the severely mentally ill who go untreated.
A Special Price to Pay
There’s a price to be paid for America’s second kind of denial, that of the need to treat the mentally ill, and many people are paying it every day. They include the mentally ill themselves as well as those close to them. We can as a country stick our heads in the sand and refuse to pay for doctors, treatment facilities, social workers, and medication. But we’d still be kidding ourselves. We can no longer afford to ignore treating the mentally ill.