Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wishful Thinking?

I hope, in light of the tragic events that unfolded at Virginia Tech a couple of days ago, that states start to take a serious look at their mental health laws. In most states, an individual cannot be compelled to receive mental health treatment unless they have made a direct suicidal or homicidal threat or an actual attempt (and, keep in mind, that if that act of aggression is towards another individual, the legal system becomes involved - not the health care system). Which essentially means that I can't lock up some annoying relative in a state mental facility just because I'm tired of him. It also means that you can wander the streets of this country, acting as crazy as your mind compels you to act and nothing can be done if you don't want it to.

This poor young man was clearly ill. It was in his writings and his behavior. The signs were there. Kudos to the people who tried to get him help, who offered to take him to the counseling center on campus. To the professor who even took his writings to the authorities and was told, because it's true, that nothing could be done legally. He was detained once by police but was, as so many are, not sick enough.

People can be mentally ill, can be completely out of touch with reality, and not be dangerous. Statistics show that only a small minority of individuals with mental illness are dangerous; the incidents of violence within the mentally ill population are actually less than within the general population. This young man could have had some relief from those inner demons that tortured him. I have been working with individuals with mental illnesses for over a decade, trying to help them get well and to find the resources which would also help fight the fight. So this incident is a slap in the face. Because this young man could have been helped if the laws were different. A doctor, a judge, a lawyer would have been able to see how ill he was and ordered him to treatment. And he may never have been able to finish that English degree, but he would have felt less tortured. Imagine if he had been helped before he became dangerous.

Those thirty-two people would probably still be alive.

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