Friday, April 27, 2007

Reader Submission: Mental Illness and Violent Crime

America Needs a Mental Health Initiative to Help Heal Society

To protect the public from potential criminals while safeguarding the individual from Big Brother is to walk a treacherous tightrope. So far, this delicate balancing act has been performed poorly by too many public servants.

The abundance of violent crime in inner-city and other high-risk areas illustrates that the nation is losing the struggle against dangerously anti-social behavior. Add school and workplace shootings to this sorry picture and the social disorder of modern America becomes disturbingly clear.

The root causes of most of twenty-first century American crime are not poverty and lack of economic opportunity. The generator of so much of our country’s criminal hostility is the alarming number of people struggling on their own with various forms of serious mental illness. The massacre at Virginia Tech only highlights this phenomenon. How else can we explain the increasing senselessness of American criminal violence?

America needs an urgent response from its elected leadership. The crisis of untreated mental illness cries out for national attention. In the crime and health care debates, mental health issues and their consequences for society have been given minimal treatment for far too long.

So much of our focus is directed at security measures that the necessity of providing better mental health evaluation and assistance is given unacceptably limited attention. According to The New York Times, there is only one clinical staff member on the typical college campus for every 1,697 students. This is a severely minimalist approach for reaching out to students in need in light of the fact that depression and substance abuse are growing epidemics on university and high school campuses. The longer that the nation gambles with this crisis, the greater the odds that crippling social disorder will result in the future.

Today’s America is fast evolving into a morally shocking society. Though segregation, discrimination, and racial violence have become targets of government action, national institutions have found themselves rather helpless at bringing the country’s moral, political, and financial resources to bear on the growing plague of serious untreated mental illness.

Teenage gang members savagely beating old people for pocket money. “Pranksters” phoning in bomb threats to high schools in the midst of post-Columbine and post-9/11 anxiety. Adults slaying their spouses and children, then turning guns on themselves. Such breaking news stories are becoming awfully repetitive for a civilized society.

The traditional explanation of moral deficiency only goes so far. There is a nationwide epidemic of psychological disorder that requires a cooperative effort between political leaders and psychiatric, public health, and other mental health professionals. The issue of violent crime has expanded fatefully beyond the narrow dimensions of the gun control and prosecution versus defendants’ rights debates.

Crime is often a sensational issue in the media. However, other pressing concerns emanating from untreated mental illness tend to go underreported. Homelessness is one such issue.

Unable to hold a job, to interact normally with others, or to deal with life’s difficulties without relying on drugs or alcohol, thousands of mentally ill Americans find themselves on the mean streets and skid rows of the nation’s cities every year. The shortage of halfway houses, clean and safe shelters, and free outpatient clinics reinforces this national tragedy. Not to mention the high expense of inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

For all the talk of “supporting the troops,” many vets continue to be abandoned to the streets and to rundown residential hotels on account of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and other behavioral and emotional problems. Without a doubt, our society is failing the mentally ill. The consequences will remain morally and socially disastrous for the country until affordable, or free-of-charge, good quality mental health services are made available to all Americans. The United States is in dire need of a “New Deal” for the health care system, with a solid commitment to identifying at-risk persons for the purpose of ensuring their own and their neighbors’ health and safety.

Individual privacy is a vital concern. Checks must be implemented to discourage the government, educational institutions, and employers from prying too deeply into Americans’ private lives. Yet, at-risk children and adults require prompt identification and psychological help before treatable problems develop into debilitating or life-destroying disorders. We have thousands of broken homes, incidents of domestic violence, runaway kids, and filled-to-capacity homeless shelters as evidence. At the most dangerous levels, the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings illustrate the potential for outright disaster for entire communities. Public safety and the health and welfare of our communities demand our country’s full dedication to these problems.

Comprehensive mental health care free of charge or at an affordable cost must be a right of every American. Our schools should be especially vigilant in guaranteeing help for students suffering from psychological and family problems that place those individuals as well as the local community at risk. While protecting the rights of victims of mental illness, progressive Americans must work to ensure the safety and welfare of innocent people who may be affected by outbreaks of pathological violent behavior. Progressives and Democrats should seize the lead in formulating bold and creative solutions for the sake of the nation.
Submitted by kmjohns


Madrigal Maniac said...

Outstanding post.

If you ever visit my blog you will see I am a social worker who works with those who suffer from mental illness. I agree that services for the mentally ill have been underfunded. We will have a huge mental health crisis when our troops come home from Iraq and we are not prepared. I would also suggest that addiction treatment is an underfunded illness that people can recover from. However, it appears to this Democrat that our governor has chosen to keep spending for mental health flat and cut spending for addiction services.

concerned heart said...

I would also like to suggest that the relationship between advancing paternal age(33 and over) and neurocognitive disorders such as schizophrenia and autism be made public. Every study that has looked at paternal age and either schizophrenia or autism has found that the risk rises as the age of the father rises. Another clear risk factor is a family history of autoimmune disorders or autism or schizophrenia. The public needs to know this because they all believe that there is no male biological clock.

Jill said...

This is a compelling post - passionate. The subjective nature of determining mental illness - the discretion given professionals to diagnose and treat it - is vast and thus a good news/bad news thing, IMO. I'm not sure what we do about that. But the more attention the topic gets, the better.

george said...

i am a social worker who works suffer from mental illness. We will have a huge mental health crisis when our troops come home from Iraq and we are not prepared. I would also suggest that addiction treatment is an underfunded illness that people can recover from me.



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gordongreg said...

This is very nice article.While few individuals with mental illness actually commit crimes, those rare cases lead many to think that any mentally ill individual is also violent. Only when not given proper treatment and placed in certain situations do some mentally ill individuals commit violent acts.
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Annie said...

Well said. I found this blog while writing an essay on making prison more conducive to rehabilitation and I agree completely.