After yet another incomprehensible act of violence, people around the country are wondering what can be done to prevent the death of more innocent people. Certainly, the accessibility of guns with the capacity to inflict maximum damage to maximum numbers of people must be addressed. As someone who has seen the unavailability of accessible care, however, the issue I would like to address is how we treat – or don’t treat – people with serious mental health issues.
Ask any criminal defense attorney what we do with our mentally ill and you will receive the same answer. We lock them up. The so-called vagrant on the street, drinking in public or disturbing (someone’s) peace will end up in only one place. In jail. The untreated schizophrenic who refuses to take his medication, usually as a result of his disorder, ends up where? The jail. The homeless man or woman who has family who wants them home, but lacks the legal mechanism to get help, can always find a bed at the local jail, if local homeless shelters turn them away. Their numbers increase daily.
Many people are condemning Adam Lanza’s mother for not keeping her firearms properly stored. I leave that discussion for others. What comes to my mind is how utterly alone she must have felt, a 52-year old woman, trying to come to terms with an increasingly unstable 20-year old son. Did she have anyone to turn to for help? Did she believe, like so many family members do, that it was her problem and she needed to solve it? Was she ashamed or still clinging to the hope that Adam would get better, that a normal life might still be available for him? Or, had she reached the end of her abilities and told him he was going to have to live somewhere else?
It’s likely we’ll never have the answers to these questions, but we must start having the very difficult discussion of what we can do to help families who face the daily struggle of caring for mentally ill children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, people who cannot advocate for themselves. Looking the other way is no longer an option. So, it is time to ask ourselves whether we are willing to devote the time, energy and resources to address this problem.
Mental illness is a health issue and should be fully covered by insurance. The increasingly tattered safety net must not be removed and indeed, must be strengthened for families carrying this heavy responsibility. Programs must be instituted to make sure people with psychiatric disorders receive proper medication and supervision. Day programs, as well as residential programs, must be made available to all, regardless of the ability to pay. We must replace the stigma of mental illness with love, compassion and support.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I know the criminal justice system cannot cure this problem. Mental illness is not a crime, but the way we treat people with psychiatric disorders is criminal.