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.