Politics & Policy

Waiting Until It’s Too Late

Mental illness and the Virginia Tech massacre.

Perhaps you’ve imagined, over the last few days, what it would have been like if a child of yours were a student at Virginia Tech. Let me take that imagining in a direction you may not have followed.

In those fear-filled hours after you heard the news of the gunman opening fire and killing undetermined numbers of people, your tremble with fear, worrying about your child. You try to assure yourself, “Everything will be fine” — yet it does nothing to rid your heart of the thought that everything not.

You try to call Virginia Tech, but the line is jammed. You call the Virginia State Police, but they can’t tell you anything. You cling to the news, but they aren’t giving any names. You call your spouse. You speak only a few words to each other, but stay one the phone, grasping for some sort of reassurance. Finally, one of you says, “We’d better get off the phone in case someone is trying to call.” You both know full-well that you need to be together, so you agree to meet at home right away. You have worried about this child for years. You wonder if you should have let him go away to school, if you were overprotective, if you were negligent, if you should have done something differently.

And then the phone rings. It is the call you dread. “This is the Virginia State Police. May I speak to the parents of …” and you hear your child’s name. You tell your spouse to get on the other extension.

“Yes, this is his father.”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, sir. Your child committed suicide at Virginia Tech today.”

You gasp, because know what is coming next. The officer doesn’t have to say anything more, but he does.

“We believe your child was the perpetrator.”

Perhaps this scenario is outside the realm of your imagination. You simply don’t see it as a real possibility that your child could do such a thing. Count yourself lucky. What little we know so far about the Virginia Tech killer suggests that this young man was seriously mentally ill. If that proves to be the case, then it is quite possible that his parents had seen bizarre and disturbing behavior for a long time. It is possible that they were afraid of him themselves. It is possible that they tried to get him help.

Until someone commits a crime, it is usually not possible to take actions that would prevent him from hurting himself or others. We don’t have facilities for people who pose a threat to others, but who haven’t done anything yet. Many mentally ill people cycle between homelessness and the county jail, incarcerated for petty crimes, but receiving no long-term help. The Treatment Advocacy Center, based in Arlington Virginia, estimates that as many as a third of the homeless suffer from either bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. But we can’t make the mentally ill take their medications, even if those medications can mean the difference between a rational person who can function normally and a delusional person who is a danger to others.

As the facts of this case continue to unfold, I would encourage the news media to refrain from rushing to judgment about the perpetrator and his parents. The parents are immigrants from a culture that places a much greater emphasis than ours on shame as a means of controlling behavior. These parents are probably already in agony. They don’t need anybody second-guessing their parenting.

What would be constructive is an honest discussion about how a free society should face the reality of mental illness. It is not a protection of civil liberties to redefine the mentally ill as if they were rational and able to make informed decisions about their care and treatment, even when they are obviously not. As we can see from the Virginia Tech massacre, it is not consistent with public safety to wait until a mentally ill person has committed a crime. It is not “personal responsibility” to expect the families of mentally ill people to take care of them themselves. This means turning their homes into a 24-hours-a-day mental institution, staffed by relatives who never get training, help, or a day off.

Some smart radio talk-show host could do a real public service by inviting the relatives of mentally ill people to call in and describe the challenges they have faced in getting meaningful help. They will give you an earful. They will tell you about the legal institutions that protect the civil liberties of the ill, without providing protection for the well. They will tell you about being sent home from the hospital with medications they can’t make their relative take. They will tell you about the revolving door between the street, the hospital and the jail.

Let these relatives of the seriously mentally ill tell their stories. I promise you a much more interesting hour of talk radio than yet another hour of yammering about gun control.

Facing the reality of mental illness just might prevent another round of school-shooting victims.

Jennifer Roback Morse is senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. She is the author of “Making Room in the Inn: Why the Modern World Needs the Needy,” as essay in the ISI Books volume Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny.


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