Monday, January 10, 2011

Tucson, America, and Mental Illness

Yesterday, as I ran errands with my youngest son, we popped briefly into a Trader Joes in an unsuccessful attempt to locate vegetarian "meatballs."  They were out, so we hoofed it out of the store and into the bitter cold.

Just past the sliding doors, we passed an older man with a long salt and pepper beard.  He was dressed in a messy melange of ragged winter clothes, and seemed to be wielding some sort of tattered banner.  "CRUCIFIED!" His shout rang out across the parking lot.  "You CRUCIFY me!  AaaHaH!  You know!  AaaaHaH!"  He grew silent, but paced and waved his arms about in an agitated way, flapping the banner, which had incoherent and smeared lettering on it.

"Was he drunk, Dad?"  asked the little guy, as we walked further into the parking lot.  "Or just mad?"

So I talked to him for a little bit about mental illness, and how our society really has no effective way of dealing with those who live with mental illness.

That reality was driven home, again, through the tragic shootings in Tucson this week.  There is, of course, much hand-wringing about how the poisonous and irresponsibly inflammatory rhetoric of the right wing could lead to violence against moderates like Congresswoman Giffords.  I do think this least briefly...chasten the rabblejabberers, in much the same way that the Oklahoma City bombing shut the mouths of the Angry White Men in the mid-1990s. 

But the reality is that the young man who opened fire...or rather, the "shooter," as we call that regularly recurring character in American culture...was not motivated by the political ideology of the right.  Within twenty minutes of the shooting, as the name of the Shooter was released, I was at my computer, googling him.  Before it got taken down and before his name was seized by purveyors of malware, I checked out his YouTube videos, and read the comments he'd left on others MySpace.

Though I have no love for the Tea Party, this tragedy was not the work of a right-wing hyperpartisan.  His writings are clearly the work of a schizophrenic.  As details of his life come to light, it's strikingly familiar.  He was increasingly erratic.  He was viewed with fear by his classmates.  He was disruptive.   Everyone he came into contact with knew there was something wrong.

But our culture no longer has institutions where schizophrenics can be cared for on a long-term basis.  Back in the Reagan era, they were defunded and shut down.  Government, you remember, is always bad.  So folks in the 1980s ran with the idea that care for the mentally ill wasn't government's business and that local communities and charities should pick up the slack. 

But after the institutions closed, the next stage never happened.  The network of community group homes that were supposed to take the place of the big state mental institutions never materialized.  We didn't want to pay for them...'cause that would have meant taxes.

And for all the talk of community institutions taking the place of government, mostly what communities care about when it comes to the mentally ill is making sure that they aren't anywhere near us.  What about the children, we cry!  And our property values, we shout!

America is just not interested in providing the mentally ill with easy access to care and support.

What we provide them instead is easy access to Glock 9 MM pistols with extended 30 round clips.

We are a very strange country.


  1. I agree. It truly is a shame how the mentally ill are marginalized in the US. Sadly, it is an age old problem. I think back into my studies and recall atrocities like Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital) in London, England for one. There is a strong prejudice in much of the world regarding the mentally ill and this causes an unfortunate backlash and tendency to ignore their needs altogether. And thus we reap what we sow, essentially.

    There is a great deal that can, and should, be done to bring these folks out of the shadows and into some semblance of a life.

  2. Unfortunately you missed a bit of history. Large Mental Health hospitals began to get a bad reputation after a movie in the early 70s about the terrible conditions at a particular hospital, I think in MA. There was a court case in which it was decided that if people were not a danger to themselves or others they could not be put in a mental institution. That was the primary reason the large institutions were shut down.

    Yes, there were supposed to be local or community centers and yes, the needed funds were never provided. But there was also a lot of "Not in my Neighborhood."

    For that matter neighborhood centers are voluntary. We have to find proactive ways to deal with those with mental illnesses who are a danger to themselves or others. And I am not convinced that large institutions for schizophrenics is worse than having them live on the streets.

  3. Drug addiction is treated in a similar manner. To get any kind of treatment, the addict has to personally choose to get it. Not sure what bearing this has on the discussion, just pointing it out...

  4. Just wanted to point out to Pastor Bob that Spear did address the Not in My Backyard mindset, though the rest of his post stands.