Last time a mentally ill person (Loughner, if I remember correctly) went on a shooting rampage, I found an excellent editorial written by a psychiatrist arguing that it is now time for that stigma against mental illness to be broken (which article is now lost somewhere within the annals of the internet, but here is a similar one). Yet we need to talk about this. We need to know the signs of serious mental illness. We need to know when to intervene and thus prevent the slaughter of innocents.
Today, I read an excellent editorial from the mother of one of these kinds of young men. After detailing the violent threats by and past ineffective treatments of her brilliant but mentally ill son, Liza Long wrote:
Now, I am connected to the healthcare industry, and I have seen first hand exactly what she is talking about. There is no inpatient psychiatric hospital than can keep the criminally insane for more than a period of a few days or weeks. The criminally insane used to have somewhere to go for the long term, where they felt safe and which also kept the general population safe, but all such institutions have been closed decades ago, leaving these people and their loved ones in a very tight spot. Continuing on:
I don't believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael's sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn't deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population.
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation's largest treatment centers in 2011.
No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, "Something must be done."
I agree that something must be done. It's time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That's the only way our nation can ever truly heal.It is time, indeed. Time to listen to women like Liza Long and psychiatrists and learn from them and think about how we can prevent the criminally-minded from becoming criminals, rather than locking them up once they are criminals. Gun control and politicization will not solve this problem: they'll use any weapon they can get their hands on because of the nature of their disease. It is time for deeper compassion and understanding towards those with mental illnesses. We must realize that they and their loved ones need our help. And they need it now more than ever. Erase the stigma.
UPDATE: for more insightful recommendations in this national conversation please go here.