What the Hell

What the Hell

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Not again...

In light of the recent news of yet ANOTHER person being pushed into the path of an oncoming subway train in New York city, I feel burdened to make a comment.  This also applies to the Sandy Hook school shooting, as well as numerous other incidents of violence in past years.  

I would hope that by now that in our "enlightened" age that we would be to the point where we don't sweep the pesky, embarrassing problem of mental illness under the rug, but actually attempt to deal with the problem.  This may upset family members of mine who may read this, but I, as do many of you, come from a family with a history of mental illness.  I struggle with it myself.  But I also go to counseling regularly and take medication.  Call it what you want, it doesn't matter what name you attach to it, this is a problem that needs to be reckoned with, and there is no easy way to do it.  In my family there is depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, agoraphobia, hoarding, alcoholism, drug abuse and much more.  Ignoring it does not make it go away.  Ignoring it is even irresponsible in the least, deadly at the most.  I wrote in the paper version of the Gazette last year about the tragic shooting that occurred here on the island where we live because a delusional young man (for whatever reasons I cannot say, but can speculate) who was not institutionalized or under a doctor's care was shot to death in the apartment over his parents' garage when he pulled out an axe on police officers who had answered a 911 call.  Subsequently the police chief and multiple police staff have been fired or resigned, and a settlement in excess of a million dollars was awarded to the family of the mentally ill man.  In this economy I need not explain that our city, like countless others, is financially in trouble.  There is not even the money in the budget to address safety issues like maintaining our crumbling roads, which has led to landslides and has forced multiple streets on the island to become "one-lane" roads as a result.  Yet the city is burdened to pay out over a million dollars because a problem was not dealt with before it UNSURPRISINGLY escalated.  It, like countless similar situations across our nation, was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.  

YES, the police department here failed in not training its officers in the proper way to interact with the mentally ill.  YES, the state failed by closing the state mental hospitals years ago and forcing many people who needed serious help either onto the streets or upon their families who were ill-prepared or perhaps unwilling to deal with the dangers this would cause, both to themselves and their communities.  I was shocked to read after the incident that the parents of the man had "warned" their neighbors to "not confront or talk to their son, but to just avoid him."  This is hardly DEALING with the problem.  How ridiculous and how frightening to have been one of those neighbors.  So the final, and most unsettling, yet preventable lapse is the failure of the family members of the ill person to take the necessary precautions to protect everyone involved.  

I heard an interview recently on NPR with a woman whose diagnosed schizophrenic son years go killed a man in an argument and served several years in prison.  She was commenting on the recent school schooting and the young man who carried out the violence, and how DIFFICULT it is to get someone like that the help that they need. She compared it to the foreclosure process, in which a person who is financially strapped and contacts his or her lender to prevent foreclosure can not even get any assistance until they have missed at least 3 months mortgage payments.  HUH?  So there has to be a public shooting of innocent people before anyone even says, "We should do something about this?"  Or more likely, "We SHOULD HAVE done something about this."  No joke.  She related how her son served his time, and now is receiving treatment, takes his medication regularly and is a valued member of society.  There are checks in place, as there should be, as there HAS TO BE.  She also noted that as uncomfortable as we are with the idea of restricting an individual's freedom, the safety of the public sometimes has to trump that and come first.    We are a nation founded on individual freedom, but there comes a time when an individual's freedom infringes upon that of another...sometimes to the point of taking away the second person's right to life itself.

Hard decisions have to be made, and unfortunately they will RARELY be made by the mentally ill person him or herself.  That is human nature.  This is where the family members, even close friends, teachers, fellow students, fellow employees, WHATEVER...must have the right to weigh in on what they see.  Their observations, as can be seen after the fact in many of these type of violent events, can be used to SAVE LIVES, sometimes only the mentally ill person's, but sometimes those of innocent bystanders as well... I have seen first-hand in my family how an entire family group suffers because of one person's issues rather than stage an intervention with that person.  I don't even believe that interventions are usually successful in getting a person to face their problems and get professional help, but their outcome CAN be  less psychological scars and pain for those who are in regular contact with the person, and actual physical safety for those who might become innocent victims should the worst happen.  

There must be (and there is ) a legal mechanism in place to restrict a person's freedom if they become a danger to others.  It should not be abused, and many in our society are afraid of this because of the harsh treatments of the mentally ill in institutions of the past.  This is a new era though, with many new understandings of brain chemistry and its effects on human behavior, and these horrible mistakes should not prevent us from being proactive when it comes to protecting the public safety.  There are times in my own family when I, had I been the one making the decisions, would have involuntarily committed a family member to force them to get the care they needed.  This is unbelievably difficult, but sometimes it must happen.  I am not saying that the easy availability of automatic weapons is not a factor because it definitely is, but that is a factor that is being scrutinized very closely in public argument, whereas I don't hear the same passionate advocation of dealing with the problem of mental illness.  

Please, please consider the individuals in your family who are troubled.  It does NOT only affect them.  It DOES affect the others in the family, profoundly and deeply... and it CAN affect those outside the family, in tragic and PREVENTABLE ways.           

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