After a horrific mass shooting that took the lives of primarily young children, many people’s thoughts turned to the inevitable questions of “why” and “how.” I also noticed, unsurprisingly, many people discussing in social media and analysts addressing on news outlets the issue of gun control. I’ll save my opinions on that topic and address what actually came to my mind immediately after or right before the gun issue: mental health in America.
I read a fine article by a psychiatrist on CNN that was written after school shootings in Ohio, and he made some fine points about major mental illness and how it is handled here in the U.S. He briefly alluded to the changes that occurred in mental health care in the past decades. Basically, people with serious issues were once confined for life to institutions, usually far from home and their families. In trying to change this system, many of these institutions were closed and their inmates sent home for treatment. While this was certainly a more compassionate and family-centered way of helping, it created many holes in the care of those with serious problems.
I want to tread carefully here. As with so many other issues, this is a complex one, with many facets that need to be considered and weighed. I suppose I should backtrack a bit and talk about why mental illness came to mind after these latest shootings: honestly, with most of these events, it is discovered during investigation that the shooter had major problems. Often, these mental problems were insufficiently addressed. I do believe that evil exists and that crimes are committed by evil people and those who are extremely selfish to the point of disregard for others’ lives. But I also have seen in the news just how often these kinds of horrific crimes are committed by people who have major mental illnesses. This isn’t to say that mental illness can’t overlap with evil, but people with mental illness can do some horrible things while basically not in possession of their “right minds.” This is why we have an “insanity defense” in our legal system, and for good reason. Those who truly experience times they are essentially just not themselves or their minds are completely not their own, once treated with medication and therapy, can experience horrible grief and remorse at what they did while under that “alternate influence,” one could say. My heart goes out to not just their victims but themselves because of what they have to live with.
Our society is still not nearly where it could be in not just treating and caring for the mentally ill, but in just understanding it and accepting it as another illness that some encounter in the course of life. I’ve often said it would be a lot easier for others to understand what I go through if I just had diabetes or cancer or something more “straightforward” or strictly “physiological,” rather than something that affects the mind. Too many people simply don’t appreciate what it’s like to experience mental issues, and too many just write them off as something kind of made-up or “all in our head” (that one’s a bit ironic). That creates a society in which those with mental illness don’t really care to admit to themselves that they have problems that could improve with proper treatment, and in which there just isn’t enough support and help for them among the general population and in health care or other parts of society. All too often, those with mental illness fall through the cracks, even more than those with other more “understandable” illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, what have you) don’t get sufficient treatment if they can’t afford it, etc.
I don’t want to see our country go back to institutionalizing everyone with major mental issues far away from society, away from their families and support systems. But I am positive that we need more real help locally, and more firm but compassionate laws that would help those who might be a danger to themselves or others. It just seems that so many who commit crimes that become publicized were schizophrenic or bipolar and weren’t taking medication at the time of the crime. And yes, in these diseases, even those who are receiving care tend to want to quit taking their meds. I hate to say that we should force medication on these people, but sometimes that seems to be one of the best ways to prevent these kinds of crimes. How we do that or at least make tighter regulations on this is, yes, complex and needs to be carefully considered and applied.
My church congregation experienced our own violent crime a mere two years ago, in which a man came into our church building after services and ended up shooting and killing our bishop. It was a horrific tragedy, and one that again showed that these kinds of things can happen anywhere, even safe places like schools and churches. We were all comforted by our faith and pulled together in this event, but it left its mark. And yes, the shooter ended up forcing a confrontation with the police in which he was killed by them, and I’m fairly confident that was his aim, to end up dead. And yes, he had mental illness for which he wasn’t taking medication at the time.
We don’t yet know if this latest mass shooting was tied to a shooter with mental illness. But I’m willing to bet it will be. And while we can rightly discuss gun control, we as a society and government would be very misguided to skip over a well-needed discussion about mental illness in America. This protester may have been addressing guns, but let’s please, please, please apply this to mental illness as well. The fate of more people hangs in the balance.