Politics & Policy

Act on Mental Illness

If we are going to have a rush to action, it shouldn’t be on guns.

Newtown is the latest locale in America to become synonymous with senseless slaughter. The shock and the horror are so intense, it almost guarantees that Congress will act.

There will inevitably be an enormous brouhaha around guns and ammunition, leading to nothing likely to prevent the next massacre. Democrats are talking about a renewed assault-weapon ban and a prohibition on high-capacity magazines. But Adam Lanza could have killed just as indiscriminately with any semiautomatic gun, and if he didn’t have a high-capacity magazine, he could simply have reloaded with smaller magazines, something the Virginia Tech and Columbine killers managed to do.

If we are going to have a rush to action, it shouldn’t be on guns. It should be on mental illness. It doesn’t make for high political drama or emotional cable chatter, but getting treatment for more of the most seriously mentally ill might actually prevent future shootings. Even if it doesn’t, it would improve the lives of sick and vulnerable people.

Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, lived alone with him and, by all accounts, was utterly devoted to her youngest child. Then, one morning he shot her four times in the head. If Lanza was mentally ill, this would accord with the pattern. Parents are the most likely to be victims of the violence of their mentally ill children.

#ad#We may never know what the dynamic was in the Lanza home. For too many parents of the mentally ill, though, it goes something like this: Their child becomes withdrawn, delusional, and erratic. If they call the mental-health system, they are told to bring the child in for an appointment and the sick child won’t go. If the parents call the cops, the cops show up and say the child doesn’t appear to represent a threat to himself or others and they leave. If they take him to the hospital, he is quickly released back to the parents even if he is admitted. The choice might become living with a deteriorating child increasingly out of his mind or forcing him out of the home and into the streets.

Yes, this is 21st-century America. Where we have better means to treat mental illness than ever before, but choose to let the insane people decide to get it or not. Where we supposedly deinstitutionalized the mentally ill by closing down psychiatric hospitals, and then reinstitutionalized them behind bars. The number of psychiatric beds on a per capita basis is back at 1850 levels, and there are three times as many seriously mentally ill people in jail or prison than in hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Where we let sick people sleep on the streets. About a third of homeless men and two-thirds of homeless women are seriously mentally ill. Imagine the national outrage if people with Alzheimer’s were permitted to wander around the streets uncared for. But, by some perverse logic, it’s considered okay for schizophrenics. 

The federal government can act on this travesty only at the margins. It is largely up to the states. They can make a real difference by stopping the further closure of public-hospital psychiatric beds and making it easier to compel treatment. Civil-commitment laws that require imminent danger to self or others are too strict. As D. J. Jaffe of Mental Illness Policy Org puts it, that standard doesn’t prevent violence, it requires violence in order to get care to someone too irrational to realize that he needs it.

When they are treated, the seriously mentally ill aren’t more violent than the general population. If untreated, though, they are. The evidence is in our ongoing roll call of horrors perpetrated by the deranged. We don’t know yet if Adam Lanza was mentally ill, or if a better system would have helped him. We do know that somewhere out there a young man is about to get very sick. He could become the next Jared Loughner or James Holmes — unless someone gets him treatment.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail:comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2012 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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