Major events are always determined by not one but several factors. Since January 8, when 20 people were killed and wounded in Tucson, much of the public discussion has focused on the availability and lethality of weapons. That’s a topic worth debating.
But in a recent poll, more than half the people who responded felt that the “mental health system” in America was a primary cause of the tragedy.
What mental health system? In America, the vast majority of people who are mentally ill can be found in one of two places: in prison or on the streets of major metropolitan cities.
People in the grips of a serious mental illness typically cannot hold a job, so the very limited and convoluted health care system we had until last year has left the vast majority with no resources for getting help.
Public funding for any kind of social programs, including those that help the mentally ill, are constantly being cut from inadequate to nonexistent, thanks to a culture that does not see taxation as a legitimate way to generate the kind of income government needs to fund the programs we need or want.
The American culture is about thirty years behind science in understanding the biology of mental illness. The 16th-Century definition of “insanity” used by the courts means that most anti-social actions committed by people who are mentally ill are treated as crimes. In a truly civilized country, people like Jared Loughner would be confined to a mental facility for the rest of their lives. (As of now, there is no cure for paranoid schizophrenia, and those who have the disorder cannot be trusted to manage it themselves.)
As it stands, however, our choices as a society are to lock the severely mentally ill up in cages with the most vicious criminals, murder them by government, or warehouse them indefinitely until they are paroled or released at some future time. None of those are rational or compassionate alternatives.
It’s very common for psychotic disorders to “present,” or become evident, in the late teens and early twenties. That’s why a Jared Loughner can seem perfectly normal to high school classmates but loonie to those who know him after graduation. Many of the most seriously ill who are dangerous to themselves and others commit violent acts in their early twenties—or at least fail to become independent, productive members of society. I can’t count the number of families I’ve known in anguish because a loved one desperately needed psychiatric help but could not afford it.
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, young adults who do not have their own insurance can at least be covered under their parents’ plans until they are 26. That means the Jared Loughners of this world can afford to get psychiatric help.
It’s not a complete solution to the problem by any means—but at least it’s a very good start.