Friday, April 20, 2007

The Mentally Ill are Going to Take A Hit

Virginia Tech Shooting Means Rough Road Ahead

In September 2001, I was naive and believed all the hot air that I was hearing about tolerance and not to stereotype people. For example, I believed that a bill, the Patriot Act, that had near unanimous approval was not an overreaction--then I actually read the law. I believed what President Bush said to a joint session of Congress:
"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them."
I was a sucker, and did not realize that we would soon attack two Muslim countries, men who look Muslim would be excluded from airplanes, and the first Muslim elected to Congress would be asked on a national television show how we could trust him? So, now we are told not to jump to conclusions about immigrants or those with a mental illness after the shootings at Virginia Tech. Well, maybe I am jaded or just wiser, but I believe there will be some big changes for mentally ill people. When the United States acts in haste in response to a national tragedy, civil rights usually go out the window. From World War II and the Japanese American forced into concentration camps to the stomping on privacy and individual liberty in the name of fighting terrorism today, we often go overboard with our answer to a crisis.

Are we going to build a bunch of asylums? Are we going to confine people to extended stays in the hospital against their will? Are we going to force people to take medicine against their will? Or are we going to build forced labor camps for immigrants or those bipolar folks in our community? I know that we are not going to provide health care and housing for our citizens, and everything short of that will just make their lives miserable.


Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.


jay-c said...

Personally, I hope this does open a discussion about how we treat the mentally ill in this country, especially those who are not able to provide for themselves. Because, in my mind, there are many questions to be answered.

I have had two people with mental illness close in my life, and they are both gone now. One man, my neighbor, was older, in his 60s, who lived in a house willed to him by his mother. It was filthy and unsafe (later we would learn his toilets didn't work). This man, a schizophrenic, did not ever go to see a doctor, so when he finally discovered he had cancer, his only option was to take the money he had left to put a down payment on his dream car. He died two months later. For years, my mom called the county mental health department, his church and others to tell them he needed someone to check up on him occasionally, but everyone said it'd be "mean" to burden him with visits from a social worker.

The other was my best friend who came from a very supportive, tightly knit family. They did their best along with "the system," but he still committed suicide. It had happened suddenly in only a couple of years, and in my head along the way I feared that one day after his parents could no longer watch over for him, he'd end up wandering the streets somewhere alone. The road and end result was no one's fault. It's almost like fate.

There have already been many misconceptions in the media about what happened this week. Chris Matthews said of this kid's shyness "It's always the quiet ones." They've already done studies that show that isn't true!

I believe we do need to have an intelligent discussion about mental health in this country. In my view, we just ignore it, and look upon it as if it's curses or magic powers over these people. As if tweaks to a person's upbringing like "loving them more" as a child will make any difference on their mental illness. I'm not suggesting we need asylums or "work camps," but there has to be a better way to handle this situation. Letting people go untreated and ignored is not a moral option to me. Rolling up with food and then rolling away, or throwing change in some guy's cup in any downtown in America does nothing to help the situation, just as sneering at them as you walk by does nothing. I'm not suggesting these people should all be herded together and locked away from the public. That's not the only option, right?

According to a NY Times article, this kid in this horrible event told his roommates he had a girlfriend named Jelly from outer space and that he was vacationing in the Carolinas with Vladamir Putin (

Obviously saying stuff like that is not a predictor of mass violence, but shouldn't it be a red flag that he might need special attention? As I understand it, the university isn't even allowed to notify family. In my opinion, we need to fund and staff the agencies we do have so that they really can support these people. At the same time, we need to educate our society about mental illness. Rather than believing in the worst, I prefer to believe in the best.

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Brian,

Several years ago I had an experience in a class of 7th graders. Two students were consistently bullying the rest of the class by disrupting lessons and after all other options were considered the school's administration decided that the disruptive bullies would be removed from the class.

Before that was done, a parents meeting was called to discuss the learning environment in the classroom. The decision was accepted with enthusiasm. The parents were pleased that their students would be returned to a learning environment.

Except one. After the meeting was over and all but one parent had left, that remaining parent broke down in tears. She was sobbing because it was her student that was going to be excluded from the class.

If we want to live in a safe, risk-free world then we need to become like the monks of Into Great Silence.

As much as we might like to, we can't lock up all our problems. If every campus in the United States only has one student like Seung-Hui Cho then that is several thousand potential mass murderers walking the halls of our universities.

How many will do what Cho did? One more, two more? No more?