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April 2 2018

Insanity: The Debate about Mental Illness and School Violence We Are Not Having

by Charlotte Hays

“The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Yet in his next sentence, Gopnik concedes: “Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given.”

That dismissive quote is from James Penero's City Journal review of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Harms the Mentally Ill, by DJ Jaffe.  He also quotes Congressman Joe Kennedy, III, who asserts in a video spot that "only" 22 percent of mass shooters are mentally ill. Only?

Panero suggests that the actual percentage is higher, but even at Kennedy's figure, doesn't that merit investigation? Penero also asks if the call for further gun control should not go hand in hand with a reevaluation of how we treat the mentally ill.

As a result of a law signed by Joe Kennedy's great uncle, many mental institutions in the U.S. were shuttered and it became almost impossible to commit the mentally ill. It should be hard to commit the mentally ill. However, it may have become so hard that people who desperately need mental health services in a facility don't get it.

Panero writes:

The madness of this present system of care is the subject of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, DJ Jaffe’s harrowing, personal, and all-too-timely account of how a system that now prioritizes “mental health” does little to treat true mental illness. Like many advocates for the severely mentally ill, Jaffe, a self-described “aging hippie” and the founder of the Mental Illness Policy Org, came to his cause through personal experience. In the 1980s, his wife’s sister, Lynn, developed schizophrenia. The diagnosis was bad enough, but the mental health system’s inability to help her, and to help her family help her, proved disastrous. Doctors refused to share findings about her condition. “Lynn returned home to us,” writes Jaffe, “and stopped taking the antipsychotic medications we didn’t even know she’d been prescribed.” Jaffe (an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute) came to realize that the law “prevents parents from helping psychotic or delusional loved ones who refuse treatment until after they become a danger. As ludicrous as it sounds, rather than preventing violence, the law requires it. That realization led me on a thirty-year journey to try to find out what is wrong with the mental health system and what can be done to fix it.”

As Jaffe makes clear, the headline-making cases involving gun violence and mass murder are only the most atrocious symptoms of a much greater systemic failure, one that leads to the expense of billions a year on mental health yet leaves hundreds of thousands of mentally ill Americans to the cruelties of the streets, the “trans-institutionalization” of the prisons, and the life-threatening dangers of their own diseases.

. . .

“We should move away from a system that requires tragedy before treatment to one that offers treatment before tragedy,” writes Jaffe. Insane Consequences details the “catch and release attitude” of today’s mental health system and the Kafkaesque trials that concerned family members often endure to protect their loved ones from themselves.

The implications extend far beyond gun violence, to harm of any kind. Consider the subway pusher Andrew Goldstein, whose lack of treatment for schizophrenia led to the death of Kendra Webdale in 1999; a law written in her name now permits at least limited involuntary treatment of the mentally ill. Or Richard Rojas, a driver high on PCP with known psychological issues who rammed his car into pedestrians in Times Square in 2017, injuring 20 and killing 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman.  

Everybody knew that Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, was going to do something terrible.  I wish somebody would do a story on how difficult it would have been to commit him.

Committing the mentally ill for treatment is a frightening subject: the ability to commit another person can be abused. But this complex issue should be just as prominent in our national discussions as guns.

Why are the Parkland students, who have become the voice for preventing school shootings  ignoring this important aspect of the problem?

It wouldn't mean they couldn't lobby against guns (though one would like to see them temper their language) but it would mean admitting that there might be several causes for a complex problem.

It is obsene not to address all relevant issues.

 

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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