Another month and another alienated young man has inflicted harm on others as a result of abstruse grudges, simmering grievances and mental health disorders that festered in plain sight and were never subject to intensive treatment.
Elliot Rodger’s horrific May 20 killing spree in California, where he murdered five other college students before ending his own life, has rekindled interest in a bill U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair introduced at the end of last year that would reform how we treat mental illness and, in Murphy’s estimation, provide intervention before people like Rodger, Newtown killer Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 shooter at Virginia Tech, and all the other perpetrators of large-scale violence, carry out their bloody deeds.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would make it easier to place individuals in institutions who are clearly, to use the everyday parlance, crazy. As the laws are currently crafted, people can be forced into treatment in this country only if it is determined they are an imminent threat to themselves or others. If that threshold is not met, the psychotic, the delusional and the deranged can decline being placed in mental hospitals and continue to live, untreated, within their communities and among their families, friends and co-workers.
Giving the mentally ill greater autonomy and say-so in their care has become accepted practice within the mental health community in the last 40 years or so, partially in response to the horrors that were prevalent at psychiatric hospitals that were shuttered in the 1960s and 1970s. But it could very well be that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and patients have been given too much latitude, when, in fact, they might well lack the judgment to make informed, wise decisions. Murphy’s bill would balance those scales and put more power back in the hands of doctors and family members who have firsthand knowledge of a patient’s condition. The proposal would also transform Medicaid rules so long-term hospitalization will be covered.
Such groups as the National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery and Mental Health America have spoken out against the bill, essentially arguing for the status quo. Some have even suggested, with some likely exaggeration, that it would “bring America back to the dark ages before de-institutionalization when people with mental health conditions languished in institutions, sometimes for life.” But keeping things as-is is not good enough – our mental health system needs reform, and Murphy’s bill is a step in the right direction.
His measure is being considered alongside reform legislation that’s been introduced by U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, an Arizona Democrat, who was wounded in the 2011 attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But his plan is largely geared toward increasing funding and awareness. As Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru put it, Barber’s bill “reflects a way of thinking about mental-illness policy that has been influential for many years. It deserves to be judged on the merits, and rejected.”
Though reforming our mental health system will surely not bring a halt to mass shootings or other acts of monstrous violence from occurring, it could help reduce their frequency. We would also like to see Murphy and his colleagues make a greater effort to reduce the ready availability of lethal weaponry, but given the stranglehold the National Rifle Association has on Capitol Hill, that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.
An observation made long ago by Franklin Roosevelt about the efficacy of New Deal programs also applies here: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”