Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Of Newtown and Magical Thinking

The Newtown tragedy brings to mind my experiences many years ago as an assistant district attorney when, among other things, I was assigned to cover the mental health hearings in the probate court of Bexar County, Texas. Every other Wednesday I met the probate judge and his clerk at his office in the courthouse and we drove together down South Presa street to the county mental health hospital. There we held involuntary and voluntary commitment hearings in a small conference room. At that time it was much easier to extend commitments than it is today.

Most of the inmates suffered from mental illnesses combined with related addictive behaviors. The hospital was pretty shabby but the inmates were at least housed, fed, medicated and protected from injuring themselves or others. The unintended consequences of the later movement to protect individuals from abuse of the mental health commitment processes of that day has been to drastically reduce mental health treatment and increase danger of injury to these patients and to the public. 

I read about twice as many calls for gun control legislation as I do for increases in funding for mental health. And I have not yet read or heard of anyone advocating changing the laws relating to involuntary commitments for those with potentially dangerous untreated mental illnesses. Yet the news today tells us that the shooter in Newtown may have become enraged because he knew that his mother was trying to get him committed to a mental health facility for treatment. That process is very cumbersome and takes too much time when a patient is in a potentially dangerous mental state.

As a society we tend to engage in magical thinking in times of tragedy like this. We think that the solution to tragedies like this lies in the legislative process. Pass some new laws to restrict gun possession and increase funding for mental health treatment and, VOILA, problem solved! 

I'm not saying new legislation in these areas is not needed, but neither will it be a cure. If not carefully thought through, new laws may bring negative unintended consequences, just as the well-intentioned changes in involuntary commitment processes resulted in growth of a troubled, untreated homeless population across the country.

I don't have the answers and I wish that I did. I do know there are too many  struggling with the problem of getting good, consistent treatment for mentally ill family members and that they also need counseling and training themselves in helping their loved ones manage these difficult, chronic conditions. 

It's going to take a lot more than magical thinking and political posturing to prevent future tragedies like Newtown. God help us.


Robin said...

I'm so glad you've shared your experience, and I hope you find a way to do so more broadly, Jody. Other than the "I am Adam Lanza's mother" piece, the mental health discussion is so far a very quiet one, although these new revelations may change that. One problem is that these shootings are outrageous public events, but mental health matters are outrageous private events -- they take place, as you point out, in makeshift hearing rooms, and in private family and doctor meetings and phone calls and hospital rooms, and on the streets.

stinuksuk said...

QG, LH and I have said nearly the same thing. It's not necessarily about gun control but helping those with mental illnesses. Sadly, as a former prison chaplain, I know all too well, that often, those with mental illness also don't take their meds like they are supposed to. There's a better chance of that with supervision.
Clearly, none of us has any easy answers to such awful tragedies.

Mary Beth said...

Thank you, Jody. I think part of the answer is that those of us who have lived with mental illness ourselves and in our families start to tell our stories. The stigma associated with it makes it so hard to tell about.

John Edward Harris said...

Another thanks for speaking out of your experience. I wish answers were as numerous as questions. Mental health is not only an issue related to gun violence, but violence in general.

inkling777 said...

"Most of the inmates suffered from mental illnesses combined with related addictive behaviors."

I wonder how many addictions are a side-effect of being medicated as a child (even appropriately) and then being kicked out of the system and into the world as an adult, self-medication, a coping strategy that gets out of control?