Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Support Mental Health or I'll Kill You

  • This piece was written on April 20th of last year, and is reposted here today, on the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 students and faculty were killed by a mentally ill young man.

    As hoped, proper action is being taken to address the real root of the problem. A lot more, of course, remains to be done.


Reid Farmer sent me a piece from The Los Angeles Times
in which that august paper suggests that the shootings at Virginia Tech are all about Virginia's "primitive" rural gun culture.

I find that pretty odd, as I have lived in Virginia for a hell of a long time and I am unaware of a gun culture in my state.

Sure some people hunt deer and turkey, but no one I know is reading Soldier of Fortune.

In my neck of the woods, the problem is not guns, but Mara Salvatrucha gang members from El Salvador who occassionally hack each other up with machetes.

I first wrote about Mara Salvatrucha in 1992, when Conrad Hilton's Best Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow paid me to go to East Los Angeles to look at gang violence there. At the time, South Central was still smoldering, but East LA was far more violent, with two-thirds of all gang deaths in the City.

In fact, East Los Angeles remains one of the most violent places on earth. In rural Virginia, on the other hand, the thing that is most likely to kill you is a deer on the road.

The simple truth is that the massacre at Virginia Tech is not about guns: It's about violence, and most importantly, it's about mental illness.

Sadly, there are ferked up people all over, and there is not much intervention anywhere. This nation is heavy with people who are drunk, hazy, crazy, and stoned, but it's pretty damn hard to do anything about it, and that's just as true in Los Angeles as it is in rural Virginia, no matter what the good editors of The Los Angeles Times think.

Why is it so hard to do anything about it?

Simple: back in the "bad old days" of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were horrific civil rights abuses and people were locked up in mental wards with little due process (and often no real treatment) for very long periods of time.

The court- and state-ordered antidote to this abuse is that today we have severely restricted the ability of police, schools, families and neighbors to involuntary lock someone up.

You may think someone is a ticking time bomb, but now he or she is going to have to "go off" before anyone can take legal action to stop it. Merely having auditory and visual hallucinations is not enough. Not bathing is not enough. Living on the street is not enough.

Today people have "a right" to not bathe, to see and hear things that are not there, to live in a cardboard box in the park, and to panhandle for change. Similarly, people have "the right" to drink themselves silly on a routine basis, and there are also many who think people have the right to abuse other drugs as well (and why not; sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, they argue).

Add to this the fact that we have decided that people also have the right to drive cars and trucks, to preach odd religious beliefs (your religious beliefs are odd, but mine are not), the right to buy gasoline, the right to buy nitrate fertilizer, the right to own a gun, and the right to buy rat and ant poison, and it's amazing we do not have mass killings every day.

Ultimately, we cannot make the world safe, and crazy people will always figure out a way. For $500 (the cost of just one of the legal guns used at Virginia Tech) you can buy 1,000 pounds of nitrate fertilizer anywhere in the Shenandoah Valley and kill far more people in 5 seconds than this lunatic did with two handguns and a couple of clips. Indeed, the very day that the Virginia Tech massacre was going on in Blacksburg, nitrate bombs killed more than 180 people in Baghdad. Am I the only one that noticed?

The "silver bullet" idea of banning guns is stupid on its face. This nation is awash in heroin, methamphetamine, illegal aliens, counterfeit handbags and watches, and cars that never saw an import sticker. I can get methamphetamine or heroin a lot faster than I can get a legal handgun and a box of bullets, and I live in (supposedly) gun-crazy Virginia.

Here's a hint: If a suburban matron can find an illegal alien to mow her front lawn, and an addict can find an eight-ball of heroin or cocaine, rest assured that criminals and lunatics will be able to find and obtain guns even if they are banned. In fact, they may be able to find them easier and with less oversight than they can now. After all, no one does a criminal background check at a drug dealer's, and there is not a 30-day waiting period for illegal alien jump labor.

Despite the fact that mental illness (and an inability to deal with it) was the obvious problem in Blacksburg, both sides of the gun debate are anxious to have another long-winded "throw down" about the Second Amendment.

And you know why? Because for Sarah Brady, the National Rifle Association, and the editorial writers across the country, gun control is the answer to the only question they REALLY want answered. And that question is this: What topic can I write a direct mail letter or newspaper column about that will generate a lot of money and/or attention?

As far as I can tell, not one of these groups really gives a damn about violence in America. When was the last time that the NRA talked about community-based mental health programs or the need for national health care so that all the crazies can afford their medications? When was the last time Sarah Brady pushed for more therapeutic communities in jail? When was the last time a newspaper or magazine said it would not accept alcohol ads because alcohol fuels so much of the violence in this country?

I am a proud Virginian, and I believe that the people of Blacksburg are not going to chase butterflies, but are going to ask the right question. The right question is: How can we enable people to be more responsible? How can we help people reach out to the troubled and disturbed people within the community, the dorm, the family, the neighborhood, and the job site?

We Virginians may be "primitive" in the minds of the arugula-eating, white-wine-and-brie crowd that edits The Los Angeles Times, but we know our ass from our elbow, and a real solution from a fake.

Above all we know enough to remember our dead for the bright young men and women that they were, rather than focus all the attention on the confused madman who craved media attention and was willing to kill to get it.



dr. hypercube said...

Agree - the mental health/civil liberties trade off is hard and we'll get it wrong with tragic results for both type 1 and type 2 errors. From Doghouse Riley's curmudgeonly blog:

"This looks like a good place to note that the various and sundry calls for some sort of Mental Health Industry solution, frequently but not exclusively envisioned as including a 21st Century synthesis of the Soviet system and the biography of Frances Farmer, fall a bit short when one considers that Cho was actually in these people's hands, and a fat lot of good it did anyone.

No, rather, if the Media refuses to share a neck, let's ask now, 72 hours later, "What have we learned?" And let's save time by answering, "Nothing." "

The world is not a safe place - pretending it can be made so is a mistake we seem to want to make on a daily basis. Bad things happen - good people die - grief is a part of the human condition. We can do things to improve folk's lot, but to imagine that we're going to end up in a perfect world is, I'm sorry to be so blunt, foolish.

dr. hypercube said...

P - I just re-read my comment after reading your post for about the 5th time today (it's a very good piece of writing). To clarify - my remarks are aimed at the folks I hear on the teevee asking "why couldn't we just commit him? what's with this medical privacy stuff, anyway?"
I couldn't agree more strongly with the points you make about the need for better public health (including mental health) care and the need to deal with root causes of violence. Good accessible health care would not only lessen the chances of a tragedy like this, it will also pay dividends when other bigger disasters - natural and man-made - occur. We can and should try to improve the lot of the poor, the crazy folks, the addicts - it may not lead us to a perfect world, but maybe we'll get to a slightly better one.
A friend just did some temping at a mental health facility in Brooklyn - she said what was especially sad was the number of problems many of these folks carried around - mentally ill, physically in bad shape, poor, homeless - a deep hole to be in...
Also - on the primitivitude (grin) of Virginians - wasn't there a Virginian way back, name of Thomas Jefferson? Yeah, poor, benighted Virginia (sarcasm)!

Pam B-W said...

It's not the guns, it's the mental healt system. No, I'm not a gun nut, I just see putting this off on gun availablity as one more rabbit trail to keep us from facing the real issue. We ignore mental illness or treat it as a character flaw. It's no more a character flaw than juvenile diabetes or a broken leg.

Anonymous said...

I have bipolar disorder. I have no history of violence, which makes me no threat to anybody. I'm lucky. I respond well to meds. There are many bipolars who walk around hearing and seeing things not because they don't take their meds, but because even taking their meds, the meds make you stable (if you're lucky). They don't make you normal.

We (voters) can't make the world safe, but mental health laws could be better. The normal argument about how the country does health care is okay in the context that someone's health is one of their personal wants and needs.

For those of us with mental illnesses that could trigger violence (in a small minority of us), stability is not a personal health care issue. It's a public safety issue.

Taxpayers should pay for the meds and psychiatrist visits for people like me because it's in those taxpayers' own self interest that I and others be medicated. We ought to have a thumbprint or something in a national registry (if we want to join that program or are civilly committed onto it) that lets us walk up to any pharmacy and say, "Uh, I don't have my meds." The pharmacist should be able to call up our meds and doses and hand us our daily dose to swallow right then and there, logging it in the system and getting reimbursed.

You sane people should do this not for our safety--for yours.

Not that you don't get a lot of side benefits when we're working and paying taxes instead of sleeping in pee in a gutter somewhere.