Our Scary National Failure: Not Guns, Not Angry Political Rhetoric…

David Brooks had an insightful op-ed column in The New York Times yesterday on the political reaction against incendiary Conservative rhetoric following last Saturday’s massacre in Tucson, Arizona.  10 years ago the bollocks explanation for school shootings was violent video games; now the anti-Federal Government “Tea Party” and Mayor Palin’s “target map” is the tenuous culprit.  Shortly after the Columbine massacre Chris Rock addressed these pop sociological explanations in a stand-up routine, then asked, “Whatever happened to crazy?”  He was on to something.  For over a decade now we have tossed around implausible partisan explanations, curiously skirting the one factor that most of these massacres have in common: They are the work of a person who is either insane and untreated, or who has recently and visibly become psychologically-disturbed.  Don’t worry about the violent video games, and summon every ounce of your magnanimity to give Mayor Palin a break: These massacres are often just an outgrowth of government’s abandonment of the mentally-ill.

Congressman Allard Lowenstein was murdered–the last Congressman to die by another’s hand, by the way–in 1980 by a former campaign worker who believed his boss was trying to control his mind through a device embedded in a gold tooth.  That’s right, the man was a paranoid schizophrenic.  The primary catalyst of Saturday’s massacre is certainly insanity–though such massacres have a possible assist from media promotion.  Brooks did well in following through this simple analysis to its challenging political conclusion, so the Liberal Ironist would like to close on his column’s closing words:

“If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?

“Torrey’s book describes a nation that has been unable to come up with a humane mental health policy — one that protects the ill from their own demons and society from their rare but deadly outbursts. The other problem is this: contemporary punditry lives in the world of superficial tactics and interests. It is unprepared when an event opens the door to a deeper realm of disorder, cruelty and horror.”

The great overlooked story here is our country’s failure to identify and care for the mentally-ill.  In the badly-misguided aim of trimming supposedly-“bloated” government spending, we have simply left the insane to their own devices.  Most of them whither in that state of isolation; a small minority succumb to paranoid or violent delusions, and turn on society indiscriminately.  These extremely-violent outbursts are the only way we’ve come to notice this mostly-silent but widespread problem.  Liberals talk about how there are too many guns or too much (Conservative) political invective; Conservatives don’t seem to have anything to say about what this repetitive pattern suggests are preventable tragedies.  Meanwhile, did you know that due to budget cuts, people going to hospital emergency rooms reporting psychiatric distress (which includes people experiencing thoughts of suicide) can wait for several days before a psychiatrist is available to see them?  How have we gone unaware of this problem for so long?

We are ignoring a national problem of the untreated insane because it doesn’t fit into our usual partisan assumptions; for the upcoming State of the Union Address, the Liberal Ironist would like to see President Obama raise the popular issue of our heated political rhetoric, then express his eagerness to work with the Republicans, then put our supposedly-bloated government’s abandonment of the mentally-ill front-and-center.  Considering the unproductive old debates it would allow them to sidestep, Congressional Republicans may quietly thank him for it.


5 thoughts on “Our Scary National Failure: Not Guns, Not Angry Political Rhetoric…

  1. Kukri

    I have read in the Washington Post that while Arizona’s mental health system is not the best, one plus is that in Arizona, *anyone* can report on someone who they believe is a threat. You don’t even have to be a family member or friend to report a person: if you see a person acting “oddly” in public and if you’ve never seen him before, you can contact mental health professionals/authorities.

    It’s clear that of all the people that had contact with the criminal, no one actually reported him to mental health professionals. The school kicked him out for repeated behavior problems, (when the campus cops came to his house to inform the family of their son’s expulsion, after an hour of staring intently at the officers he simply said, “This is all a scam.”) but no one actually informed the state or required him to see a shrink.
    That is huge tragedy in this situation and many others: how many people run into someone who needs help, but stay silent? Too many. It’s easier to ignore the troubled, or to simply “sit near the door, to be able to get away quickly” if he turns violent, as that one female classmate said.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Brooks suggested that an appropriate reform might be to invest more power in courts to order institutionalization of paranoid schizophrenics. That might sound like a radical measure to some, but I don’t find that as scary of a prospect as continuing to ignore the dangerously-disturbed. I would expect such measures to be taken along with an increase in state expenditures for psychological services.

      Obviously it’s a problem that no one notifies the proper psychological services about such clearly-psychotic individuals. It won’t do for us to throw our hands up and say, “This only happened because the people around him were too self-involved;” the culture will have to change. Better education of the public, in particular training and instruction about what sorts of measures are possible and whom to contact, for people working in schools and colleges or service professionals, could also help.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Those situations all indicate the social cost of our society and government not being more-proactive about acknowledging and treating mental illness. In the latter case, a delusional woman’s rights were acknowledged at the expense of her career. And that’s a mild case compared to the recent one. Each of these cases say to me that we aren’t doing enough, that we need an approach to institutionalization that actually focuses on a subject’s mental health.

  2. Pingback: What I’d Like to See in the 2011 State of the Union Address | The Liberal Ironist

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