One of the things that brought me hope after the past couple of years’ mass shootings was the pooling of state and federal resources to address issues of mental illness in this country. Oh, right, that didn’t happen. I try not to engage in too much political banter at the gun shop where I work, but it sort of becomes inevitable after a media-blasted “mass shooting.” Though I am not a psychologist, customers ask me about the root cause of all these incidents. Though I am not a politician, they ask me what I think the solution is. Since I’m a rational human being and a Catholic, I know that guns are inanimate objects that hold no moral properties. You can’t place blame on something that is soulless and dead. A gun can’t act of its own accord. Jokes about SkyNet aside, even an automated gun with AI would have to have some sort of human programming initially, thus being at some point, operated by man . . .
I generally respond to customers who ask with something like this: I believe the reason for the inaction on mental health issues is because the fault with mental health reform lies with both parties. Before a couple weeks ago, all I had to go on were stories from baby boomers. I frequently heard stories about “sometime in the 1970s when they let all the crazies out of the hospitals.” I’m sure some of you have heard similar accounts. I finally took interest in this and Googled it. Sure enough, the baby boomers were correct…sort of.
In 1975, there was a landmark case called O’Connor v. Donaldson. The case centered around a man named Kenneth Donaldson who was institutionalized in 1943 for a traumatic episode. He returned to his family after a number of years and lived a life of normalcy. Sometime in the 1950s, during a family outing in Florida, he made an off-the-cuff comment that he was afraid that a neighbor was poisoning his food. His father reported him to the authorities and back to the institution he went. Donaldson fought the case in court and won.
The ruling in this case was that:
a state cannot constitutionally confine a non-dangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by themselves or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends
That seems reasonable enough. You can’t confine someone to an institution who is merely different. This case probably saved many people who were “different” at the time from institutionalization. In the words of the court:
May the State fence in the harmless mentally ill solely to save its citizens from exposure to those whose ways are different? One might as well ask if the State, to avoid public unease, could incarcerate all who are physically unattractive or socially eccentric. Mere public intolerance or animosity cannot constitutionally justify the deprivation of a person’s physical liberty.
Again, reasonable enough. One can see how, without this ruling, people could have been unconstitutionally confined for being gay, transgendered, artistic, or even for making an off-the-cuff comment like Donaldson did. This was a unanimous ruling by a court comprised of liberal and conservative judges.
The thing is, a number of these mass murderers have made statements and engaged in eccentric activity that raised eyebrows. Seung-Hui Cho wrote numerous and (according to his professors) incoherent and psychotic short stories. He acted oddly in class. Nobody reported this behavior until after he shot up Virginia Tech. Jared Loughner and Elliot Rodger both made rambling videos, effectively manifestos that had been posted online, and nobody did anything. Were their professors and peers dismissing them as merely socially eccentric?
I’m sure that the judges didn’t foresee mass shootings when they ruled in O’Connor, although Charles Whitman shot up the University of Texas campus only a couple years earlier and he was never committed. I always wonder how they could have glossed over that one.
At this point in the conversation, I usually have to speed things along. I can’t take up too much of the customer’s time and vice versa. I usually end things with a parting thought:
I think it’s going to be a real sad and ugly day when we have to confront the issue of mental illness in this country.
It’s going to reveal a number of things. First, both political parties have failed on this issue. I’m sure that many of the politicians who spoke in favor of the Supreme Court ruling in O’Connor are either long dead or senior party leadership and as such, beyond the reproach of their respective parties. No junior politician wants to be the person to smear Reagan, Clinton, or whoever.
Then, if the Supreme Court ruling ever is even modified in the slightest, it probably will tear some families apart. Finally, and related, we need to really define what “mentally ill” means. I’m always reminded of an Ellen Degeneres comedy skit from the 1990s. In the skit she asks, “Remember when we just had crazy people?”
In our ever-increasing march towards acceptance, we have blurred the lines between mentally unstable and eccentric. I reproach my music students who describe themselves as crazy when they, at least clinically speaking, are not. For example, I had a student who liked to wear a lot of black and purple. She dyed her hair to match her clothes. She said, “oh, my friends and I are crazy.” No dear, you’re eccentric, not unstable. It’s not like you dye your hair and then try to murder the least popular member in your group as a sacrifice to Slender Man. You just dress differently.
Or think of it this way: if Miley Cyrus walks around in public without pants on, nobody cares. She’s “artistic.” She’s making a conscious choice to dress that way. If grandma is walking around in public without pants, she probably needs some help.
And there lies another point. It’s perfectly fine to question someone’s well being. At some point, someone has to say, “look, this person isn’t expressing their First Amendment rights, they’re mentally unstable.” If they are truly sane, they’ll probably be able to make a convincing case that they made the decision of their own accord and then explain why you’re wrong. Then you can both part ways, disagreeing, and saying nasty things about the other person behind their back, like most people in America do.
I guess most of it comes down to personal and familial responsibility. In the olden days of the 1970s and prior, people were more conscious if their disturbed family members were out and about by themselves. They felt personally responsible if their mentally disabled family member made a scene. They watched after them at home.
We had a family friend with a mentally disabled sister. She watched after her sister until the day she died. She did it out of love and duty. She didn’t reject her familial bond because it was inconvenient. Similarly, when the sister’s care became more and more difficult, the sister was placed in assisted living, where she could be monitored on a continuous basis.
When I was younger, I might have uttered the quip, “Dude, if you do that, I swear I’ll kill you.” I’m sure many of you said the same and never actually meant it. Today, I censor my speech out of habit and concern that it could be misconstrued. Also, there are people out there today who actually mean it. We might have to micro-manage ourselves to some extent. You are of course free to say, “I hate Robert Farago. I swear I’ll kill that guy if I ever see him.” But remember that you may get a visit from a police officer if Robert actually feels threatened and you may have to explain your actions. So, in the end, you might just stick to not threatening and just say why you disagree with someone.
We’re also responsible for our own mental health. There was a point a couple years ago where I was pulling 16-hour Mondays and 12 hour Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The work was something I enjoyed, but I realized that it was starting to exhaust me mentally. I realized that I needed to cut back. I wasn’t on the verge of snapping or anything, but I noticed decreased performance. I couldn’t begin to imagine the effects if I’d been doing work that I hated. I understand that the economy is awful. Work’s nice when you can get it. However, if your job is literally killing you, it might be time to move to something healthier. I think people are worked harder than ever these days.
One reason that Europe may have fewer mass shootings is better work benefits. Germany, for instance, gives starting employees around 32 days vacation time. By the time you retire, you can get up to 50-some vacation days. I don’t think more time off has made the Germans a lazy people. Americans are lucky if they get any time off. We all need a chance to crash and relax. I know some will cry “socialism!” at the thought of giving employees that much time off, but if there’s a choice between a purported slight decrease in productivity and a massive increase in stress and mental instability, I say, “Let’s all go to the beach and drink some beer!”
I am not a politician, a psychologist, a medical doctor, or an economist. I am not a philosopher or a sage. But I know that I don’t have to be any of those things to realize that we have completely failed at addressing the issue of mental health in this country.