A reader writes:
Your story resonates with me because my mother suffered from post-partum depression after my birth (I am the fourth of seven children), which eventually plunged her into depression – and ultimately she suffered from bi-polar disorder. She was "treated" with electro-shock therapy and was hospitalized several times. My father was mostly able to shield us from her illness, but her nervous breakdown in our kitchen on a Sunday morning when I was about 15 years old is seared into my memory.
And then three years ago, my 21-year-old son died by suicide.
Since then, my wife and I have started a non-profit organization to help parents deal with their children who struggle with mental illness. So many of the issues now being discussed have been tossed around in my household for several months.
I largely agree with your assessment on how the issue of mental illness should be addressed within our society. Our attention should not focus on preventing massacres or suicides, because the incidence of these events is relatively rare. Rather, our focus should be saving people from the hell of mental illness. If we can achieve some success in that regard, then the numbers of tragedies will decrease as a by-product, and we'll realize the additional benefit of a portion of our society becoming more productive. How much is the right amount to invest in mental health? That question should be answered by a serious public discussion that should be led by the President and by Congress.
I worked as a teacher for the past three years at a charter school that attracted a disproportionate number of antisocial children, so we spent a fair amount of time researching what we could do as a school to help these kids. We determined from the research that the most effective programs screen kindergarten or first grade children for antisocial behavior using objective tools designed for this purpose. These screening tools not only identify children who act out, but also those who are withdrawn and tend to be overlooked. Just as we know that early intervention is necessary for academic concerns, it is also necessary for behavioral and emotional problems.
So, did we actually implement this program? No. Some members of the school board were concerned that children of color would be disproportionately identified by the screening tools. Mind you, there was no proof that the tools were biased and we had not even determined which screening tool we would use. I think they were really uncomfortable about identifying Kindergarteners as "antisocial," although any Kindergarten teacher will tell you that some of their students are- they'll just use nicer words. The research says that we tend to minimize social problems in small children, so kids don't get help until they are older and the patterns are ingrained, if they get helped at all.
I was a legal clerk in 2011, representing the county in mental health probate court in informal hearings to adjudicate citizens with mental illness. The county always won the case. Always. The judges are afraid of not committing a person for fear that they might harm someone. Sounds great right? A mentally ill person is given the treatment they need and they are no longer a risk to the community or to themselves.
This is where the deficiencies of the system were glaring. The order to commit a person is usually good for 30 to 90 days (typically 30 days). During those 30 days, the institution would medicate and work with this person and try to improve their mental state to a point that they are no longer a threat to themselves and others. Then? They are released. If the person is lucky, they would have someone to be released to. Usually, they are just unleashed on the public.
The public wants an easy fix. There is no easy fix. Just like every other societal issue, the public looks to the government to solve this problem but doesn’t want to pony up the money it takes to fix this problem. There is no way to sugar coat this, it is a big problem.
I tried an elderly woman who believed she was pregnant with President Obama’s child after she ran away from her nursing home and was almost struck by a car on a main road at 3 a.m. I tried a middle-aged man who exposed his genitals to children at a park because he believed he needed their attention to keep his bones from melting. One of the people I tried was a 24-year-old pharmacy school student who had no mental health problems until a sudden onset of schizophrenia caused him to shoot the local NBC affiliate because the voices in his head told him he had to get on TV to save young people from gun violence.
These folks are black, white and Latino. They are mothers, fathers and sons. They really are a risk to themselves and others. I thank God that only one of them had access to a gun; and that he only managed to shoot a glass door.