The news media, the politicians, the "experts" all seemed focused on "better & more comprehensive" gun control. Their reasoning is it will make our world safer. However, no matter how many guns they take away, there will always be the individual who finds one and kills someone else. There will always be the individual who finds a way, even without a gun, to harm others. What the news media and politicians have yet to address is the woefully inadequate mental health system that exists today.
In an article by Sue Abderholden, Executive Director of NAMI Minnesota, the truth was exposed about the current status of our mental health system.(http://www.crimeandjustice.org/councilinfo.cfm?pID=55)
"In 1957 across the nation, there were about 565,000 people with mental illnesses in psychiatric hospitals or institutions. It’s important to acknowledge that institutions themselves are not a mental health system. For the most part, institutions were closing at that time because of lack of treatment and substandard conditions.
Today, the number of people with mental illnesses living in hospitals or institutions is well under 40,000. This significant reduction reflects the change in the way our society generally views mental illnesses and other disabilities; that people belong in communities and not institutions.
The community movement began in 1946 with the passage of the National Mental Health Act which created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and charged the organization with three broad functions:
- Provide funding to states in order to develop programs to address mental illness and thus reduce the need for institutional care;
- Develop and promote training for mental health professionals; and
- Promote and conduct mental health research
During the 1950’s antipsychotic medications were introduced which also offered hope for recovery and a life in the community. This was followed by passage of several pieces of legislation, including one in 1963 that created Community Mental Health Centers. President Kennedy held out the promise for a life in the community in a 1963 speech stating that “If we launch a broad new mental health program now, it will be possible within a decade or two to reduce the number of patients under custodial care…reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”
Years ago, I was working on a degree in mental health. Although life took me in a much different direction in the end, I had the opportunity to learn things that have stayed with me. My practicum was spent in a psychiatric ward as an intern. My job while there, was taking histories from the patients, learning to diagnose, and then learning how to counsel these patients. The most startling aspect of this experience, was how many times each of the individuals had been admitted into the "system". Every few weeks, or months, these individuals were Baker Acted back into the psychiatric ward. Most stayed the mandatory 72-hours. Their current history was added to the volumes of notes already taken from previous stays, a team would put together a voluntary treatment plan; if there was a family involved they would be brought in and the plan explained to them; drugs were prescribed; and then at the end of those 3-days, they were released.
What dawned on me was that nearly everyone of these patients could be standing next to me in the grocery store line on any given day, and if I didn't know who they were, I'd have no idea they'd just done another stint in a psych ward. What was even more disconcerting was that some of these people had really violent thoughts, and as the laws are written today, until they do harm, there is nothing anyone can do. One such example was a gentleman I interviewed. He was the brother of a mass murder who at the time was on a death row. I don't remember the reason this man had been admitted, but I do remember the interview vividly. He had explained to me that he lived near a school, and that in the morning and afternoons, when the children were walking to and from school, their laughter and chatter was so upsetting to him that he wanted to hurt them to make them be quiet. His solution at the time was to shut himself in a closet so he couldn't hear them. I sat there expressionless taking my notes, all the while wanting to run out of the room and tell someone this man was a potential time bomb. I did go to my supervisor and informed them what I had learned and that's when I was told that until he did something, there was nothing anyone could do.
Now, I totally understand, you can't institutionalize everyone who has a crazy thought "just because"......but, where there is an individual who has a life history of mental illness, it seems there should be more that we as a society can do. Unfortunately, our government has set these very individuals in a position to do harm, and left the rest of us to clean up in the aftermath, all the while shaking our heads declaring we should have stricter whatever kind of laws to make sure this doesn't happen again.
There are no easy answers, but after witnessing the things I've seen I truly believe we have to step back as a society and re-evaluate how we treat mental health issues. We need a more comprehensive treatment system. We need to have the capacity to deal with these individuals before they do harm to others. We need a system that supports the families who have an individual in it with mental health issues. As it stands now, our government is a system of "reactions" versus "preventions". What the government calls prevention is in realty penalties for the majority for the actions of a few--instead of dealing with the issues that culminate in these horrific events.
My heart aches for everyone directly impacted by the tragedy in Sandy Hook. My heart aches for every parent that sends their child to school, and now worries it could happen again. My heart aches for the children who go to school in fear they might be next. They say life isn't fair........but this is one issue no one should have to grapple with.