After tragedies such as that which took place in Arizona on Saturday, what if people were as quick to ask about mental health services as they are to place events in a political equation?
Over the weekend, I asked such a question on Twitter and one reply was that Arizona Republicans pushed a health care package that cut mental health services. We have a hard time not framing things in the context of political philosophy.
Lots of radio talk shows — including ours — are asking about political rhetoric today. That’s a valid topic, to be sure. But ignoring the aspect of the mentally ill seems invalid.
Have we abdicated our responsibility, as a society, to protect ourselves from potentially harmful people like Loughner? We no longer lock up the mentally ill, which reflects two benign tendencies in society: we have become more humane and we have developed drugs that mitigate most forms of mental illness. My old mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to lament the explosion of homeless people in New York–the vast majority of them either mentally ill or drug addicts–and he wondered whether, in the name of humanity, we had become inhumane in the treatment of those who couldn’t take care of themselves, even when medicated. A corollary worry was this: Had we exposed ourselves to more violent crimes by assuming the innocence of those, like Jared Loughner, who seemed capable of violence?
Merely “locking up the mentally ill” seems illogical, but how we get to them and provide help to them seem like a reasonable question, especially after Mr. Loughner’s now well-documented community college behavior. Consider this e-mail from a student, obtained by the Washington Post:
“We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon. Everyone interviewed would say, Yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird. I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast…”
Seung-Hui Cho also showed signs of an untreated — or not adequately treated — mental illness just before he shot up Virginia Tech in
2005. A review panel assessed the availability and quality of treatment:
“Virginia’s mental health laws are flawed and services for mental health users are inadequate. Lack of sufficient resources results in gaps in the mental health system including short term crisis stabilization and comprehensive outpatient services. The involuntary commitment process is challenged by unrealistic time constraints, lack of critical psychiatric data and collateral information, and barriers (perceived or real) to open communications among key professionals.”
Dr. Keith Ablow, a FoxNews blogger, says the fact the suspected shooter in Arizona was mentally ill may have more to do with Saturday’s events, than political rhetoric:
As a forensic psychiatrist who also has run community mental health centers, hospitals and clinics, I can tell you for sure, without any question, that the mental health care delivery system in this country is shoddy and shattered and without any hope at present of dealing effectively with sick individuals like Jared Loughner. There are slim resources and no strategy, whatsoever
Last year, Minnesota moved to cut the already patchwork services to the mentally ill. It was a budgetary issue, it was an issue over whether the role of government includes health care. It was never considered a public safety issue.
Update 12:45 p.m. – MPR’s Public Insight Network has been soliciting information about availability of mental health care in Minnesota. If you have information you’d like to share, please use this form.