Today’s mentally ill have all but returned to the preinstitutional conditions of the 1850s and before: When not sleeping on the streets, many are again consigned to drift among a custodial system of prisons, welfare hotels and outpatient facilities.
In 1880, the severely mentally ill made up less than 1% of the U.S. prison population. A hundred years later, the percentage was 10 times greater.
Changes in the laws placed a heavier emphasis on the rights of the patient than the safety of society, to be blunt about it. There are huge legal barriers against commitment of the mentally ill. In order to be committed, the patient must be a threat to himself or others. This often means that an attempted suicide or an attack on others must occur before the mentally ill person can be restrained.
This is not a kindness to society, and it certainly isn’t kind to the mentally ill. Without care and separation from normal society, a small but significant percentage of the severely mentally ill now pose a danger to the general public. Many of America’s mass homicides have been committed by mentally sick persons whose mental illness is ignored. In many cases, families attempt to force treatment of mentally ill relations, but are unable to do so because their civil liberties trump the perceived need for their incarceration.
Mental institutions were funded and built because society had been dealing with the mentally ill in a way similar to what we see now – instead of treatment, they are thrown in jail, or live on the streets. Many are addicted to drugs or alcoholics. Some are violent, and innocent citizens are attacked or killed. The mental institutions were built by the states, dedicating funds to care for mental patients in a more caring and moral way. Were mistakes made, or patients mistreated? Sometimes, yes. But, in the long run, it was a kinder and more effective way to deal with the mentally ill in our society.
I believe that if we had a system that allowed for the mentally ill to be incarcerated in facilities that are safe, and helped them to regain their mental health if it is possible, several of the terrible mass killings we have recently seen would not have happened. I believe that people like Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and Nikolas Cruz probably would have been stopped before they perpetrated such crimes. As it is, the hands of families, doctors, and police are tied.
Police were called to the home of Nikolas Cruz 39 times in the years leading up to the massacre at his former high school. According to a local television station, administrators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School recommended back in January 2017 that the school board conduct a “threat assessment” on Nikolas Cruz to determine if he was a danger to the school and its students. A copy of Cruz’s discipline summary shows that Cruz was involved in an assault at the school on Jan. 19, 2017, less than three weeks before he was transferred out of the school. It was on that date that the school put in a referral for the threat assessment on Cruz. Even though the Superintendent is quoted as saying they had no warning, many students stated that they were not surprised. A typical statement by a student was, “He’s mentioned plenty of times that he wanted to shoot people and, like, that’s why he would want to go to the military.”
To understand what a parent with a mentally ill child faces every day, read the blog post written by a mother after Adam Lanza shot up the school in Newtown. Her son was 13 years old:
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
Here is the link to her blog post: I am Adam Lanza’s Mother
NOTE: Her son, Michael, was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and is now doing fine on medication, lithium. Unfortunately, she is blaming Republicans for supporting gun rights, and the NRA, and for not spending enough on mental health (I agree with her there). Her latest blog post: http://anarchistsoccermom.blogspot.com/2018/02/dear-congress-if-mental-illness-causes.html