(From Chapter 5 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE)
Kevin was in a frenzy for us to get to the airport parking garage when I picked him up for the last few days of winter break 2000. He was back home from a visit to his new Interlochen room-mate, who lived Jacksonville, Florida. Kevin had a surprise for me.
He dumped his guitar and backpack into the rear seat of the van, foraged in the backpack, then barreled into the front seat brandishing a CD in its jewel box, which he ripped open. I had hardly got the motor started when Kev shoved the disk into the car player and shouted, “I want you to hear this!”
I left the car in parking gear and we listened as the music started to play. Kevin turned up the volume and then peered intensely at me.
The songs were punk. But what punk! Six driving pieces of blazing force and disciplined musicianship—guitar, bass, drums and vocals. I had never been a fan of punk, but this was something else, something beyond. The songs surged forth, alternately seditious, playful, and charged with young-male defiance, typically toward a girl who’d thrown the young male over. “I won’t change myself for anyone,” the lyrics ran, and, “Why do we pretend that we were made for each other?” and “Why did you lie to get your way?” (When Pedant Father suggested a few days later that she had lied to get her way to get her way, Kevin shot Pedant Father a sidelong you-are-so-out-of-it look, and Pedant Father kept himself out of advice-giving after that.) The lyrics contained the requisite quotient of alienated-youth trashmouth; yet the songs were not dark at all. The words seemed to be present mainly to provide a superstructure on which to mold the magnificent music.
The longest and best of the six pieces was a fireworks display titled “Epistemological Commentary.” Kevin took his longest solo in that one, and it was out of this world: an intricate display of fast scale-running, up and down and up and down again; but shaped into an exhilarating musical idea. Kevin shifted chords upward near the end, and his guitar turned into a calliope, tootling away in some celestial circus of joy everlasting.
I didn’t say anything when it was over and the disk slid out of its slot. I didn’t want to trivialize what I’d just heard with some inane boilerplate comment. I think that I ended up just shaking my head, and putting my hand on my son’s shoulder. The only sound was of the van’s engine humming in the chilly parking lot.
Kevin had his lopsided grin working. He nodded. He understood.
At 16, he had just lived out a kid’s fantasy of a professional band’s studio session. In Jacksonville (this had been planned) Kev and his roommate Peter Rogers, a gifted classical and rock bassist, had rented a recording studio and a control board, which they worked themselves. They invited a third musician, a young, dynamic drummer named Scott Shad. Scott was a member of Inspection Twelve, a Jacksonville band on the cusp of its national debut with a CD titled “In Recovery.”
On New Year’s Eve, as Kevin told the story, the trio entered the soundproofed room, set the volume and tonal controls, and began playing. They recorded and re-recorded and edited throughout the night—a detail that richly flavored Kevin’s fantasy-come-true. By morning they had nailed it. They ran off several copies of the master, with the intention of sending them out to record companies. And they awarded themselves a suitably macho punk band name: Booby.
They sent their CD off to several places including an emerging musicians’ go-to website, garageband.com. It took the site about four months to begin posting the songs.
Subject: The rave reviews
Date: Sun, 06 May 2001 07:52:35 -0400
From: Ron Powers <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Kevin Powers <email@example.com>
I assume you’ve been checking out the reviews of “Epistemological
Commentary” on garageband. They’re mostly over the top! I love the one
that says, “I’ve listened to a heap of songs on GB and this is the best
Punk song I have heard on the site thus far! This song rocks! That
guitar line is so damn cool I can barely stand it. . .” and on and on.
It must give you a tremendous rush to read this kind of praise. I also
notice that you’ve made the Qualifying Round and that your Punk ranking
is 100. I think you’re still on the way up, and next Wednesday should
give you a real boost from reviewers. Pass the word to Peter–you guys
NOTE: “Epistemological Commentary” is the third track on the accompanying links. I will post the remaining three tracks later.
When Kelly Rindfleisch wrote the words, “No one cares about crazy people,” she never dreamed Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times-bestselling author Ron Powers would read them.
“I cannot describe to you the emotion, the shockwave, that hit me when I read that quote,” says Powers, author of No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America, who Kirkus reached at home in Castleton, Vermont.
Rindfleisch, who was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Deputy Chief of Staff, wrote the hateful words in a 2010 email uncovered by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. To her campaign colleagues, she mocked and dismissed the depredations of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, where a woman being treated for bipolar disorder died of starvation. Where workers sexually assaulted and impregnated patients.
“The fact was ungodly abuses happened at the Milwaukee County Hospital that were medieval in nature,” Powers says. “The rape of patients, starvation, naked patients walking around, physical abuse—there it is, in our time. It’s not something you have to look in an encyclopedia to find.”
Powers is an award-winning writer with criticism, narrative nonfiction, and biography to his credit. He is the author of Mark Twain: A Life and coauthor of the No. 1 New York Timesbestseller Flags of Our Fathers, which was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. He and his wife, Honoree Fleming, a pioneering biochemist, are the parents of two sons, Dean and Kevin, who were diagnosed with schizophrenia in young adulthood.
“This is the book I promised myself I would never write,” Powers writes in No One Cares About Crazy People. “And promised my wife as well. I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”
No One Cares About Crazy People is a treatise on the state of mental health care in America today—how we arrived at the disgust, hostility, and ignorance embodied by Rindfleisch and her ilk. It’s also the emotional story of the Powers family’s struggle with the fearsome scourge of schizophrenia.
“I did not want to commodify my sons,” Powers says of his hesitation to include his family’s struggles in the book—a decision that came at the behest of his literary agent, encouraged by his editors at Hachette. “I didn’t want to turn them into a profit center, even unconsciously. I didn’t want this to be a ‘poor daddy’ book. There are so many…unworthy motives you could [have] for writing a book like this.”
Powers spent a decade researching nosology, political history, and structures of care and governance of schizophrenia (i.e., how the police and the courts treat the afflicted). In the book, he traces mental health care’s shocking history: from “Bedlam” asylum in London, the scene of centuries’ worth of shocking abuses, through American deinstitutionalization; the deleterious denial enacted by popular figures like Dr. Thomas Szasz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness and L. Ron Hubbard colleague; the noble mental health care initiatives of Presidents Truman and Kennedy and mass defunding by President Reagan; and the consequences for those living with the disease today, bumping up against untrained police, ignorant lawmakers, and fearful neighbors.
“Schizophrenia is different from depression, it’s different from hysteria, it’s different from any kind of bad mood or grudges or the kinds of things we all encounter,” Powers says. “It has a genetic component and it flows through families—probably, almost certainly, has flowed through mine, although no one in my family was ever diagnosed…. It must be understood as different, and it requires different solutions than I think we traditionally apply.”
Forced to bear witness to the inadequacies of our current system, Powers has issued a clarion call to arms: to do better by those with mental illness, their loved ones, and communities; to move toward ameliorative policies that consider their health, well-being, and civil liberties. In short, that we start to care about “crazy people.”
“I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene. Only if this happens, and keeps happening until it needs happen no more, can we dare to hope that Dean and Kevin and all their brothers and sisters in psychotic suffering are redeemed; that they have not suffered entirely in vain.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.
‘No One Cares About Crazy People’ cries for more attention for the mentally ill
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ron Powers draws on heart-wrenching personal experience in writing about the way society treats the mentally ill.
The title of the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and biographer Ron Powers, No One Cares About Crazy People, is a quote from a disclosed email sent by an aide working in the Milwaukee County Hospital, a line the aide never intended to be made public but that summarizes all too accurately the attitudes – on a personal and institutional level – that Powers encountered in the course of dealing with the schizophrenia that afflicted both his sons while they were still barely into their teens.
His older son Dean and his younger son Kevin are portrayed in these pages with achingly tender precision as they experience normal rambunctious boyhoods and the beginning of seemingly ordinary teenage years – the school experiences, the girlfriends, a shared love of guitar-playing that Powers clearly loves to remember: “From [Kevin’s] solemn expression as the notes leaped and danced, you might have thought he was playing chess,” Powers writes. “And perhaps he was.”
But lurking under the surface of all this smiling family happiness was what Powers calls the “scourge” of schizophrenia. It developed early in both boys, and throughout the book, Powers interweaves his account of one family’s steadily-worsening crisis with a broader historical inquiry into how societies have dealt with the mentally ill, and specifically how American society deals with the epidemic today. According to the World Health Organization, fully a quarter of the world’s population will experience some kind of mental illness; “two thirds of these,” Powers writes, “either do not recognize that they are ill or simply refuse treatment.” In America, the National Institute of Mental Health studies indicate that more than 62 million adults require some combination of counseling or medical treatment for mental illness, and in his book Powers tells some of those countless stories as counterweights to his tales of Dean and Kevin enduring “the mercies of an unmerciful world.”
The worst of that unmerciful world, unsurprisingly, is the world of US prisons – a world that comes into the ambit of the book because of the legal problems his son Dean encounters. “The American prison system is an archipelago of barbarity,” he writes with damning directness. “In many important ways its assumptions and practices bespeak the Middle Ages.” According to a Department of Justice study, more than half of the country’s roughly 2 million prisoners suffer from some kind of mental health problem, and the ruthless squalor of their lives, the criminalization of mental illness reflected in their plight, fuels some of the book’s most scathing prose – as does the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s and 1970s spearheaded by Thomas Szasz, author of “The Myth of Mental Illness,” and by L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer who created Scientology.
Powers unflinchingly counts up the vast and varied costs of such movements, costs in human suffering on every level, from comfortably “normal” suburban kids like his own to the many hundreds of wretched victims whose untreated conditions propel them into deadly confrontations with the police. “What of the lengthening list of sufferers who have been shot dead by officers who saw their movements as threatening and had no training in the restraint of people in psychosis,” Powers asks, “in part because such training has been deemed unnecessary, given that ‘psychosis’ is a ‘myth’?”
Ron Powers has earned his right to publish a book as angry and revelatory as “No One Cares About Crazy People” – he’s paid the highest price a father can pay: his son Kevin hanged himself, and it was Powers who found the body (“A dusty little window just under the ceiling,” he writes in the nearly unbearable moment, “on his far side, allowed some weak morning light to play on his hair, not enough to fire up the gold”). He has shaped his pain into a sustained howl of incandescent outrage, a book too heartbreaking to be comforting (despite its glimmers of die-hard optimism) and too uncompromising to be ignored. It’s a book to stand comparison with Sylvia Nasar’s “A Beautiful Mind” but that is in many ways even more powerful, since Kevin and Dean are not math prodigies like that book’s main character but rather are the very picture of normal American boyhood until mental illness darkens that picture completely.
“I hope that you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” Powers writes. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been in writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.” Readers of “No One Cares About Crazy People” will certainly feel that wound, and they will finish the book more convinced than ever of Powers’s central anthem: “Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.” If any book can begin to change those conditions, this is the one.
NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE will appear in bookstores today!
On Monday, Terry Gross broadcast her interview with me on NPR’s Fresh Air. Here is a link to the transcript: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/20/520809904/father-of-2-sons-with-schizophrenia-talks-of-his-struggle-to-save-them?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=freshair
From time to time on this blog, I’ve lamented the uncounted family members—mothers, mostly—who are aware of the hideous abuse their mentally ill children suffer in jails, and sometimes in care centers and by law enforcement; yet who choose to keep their voices muted for fear of stigma and possible retaliation by the abusers.
On Sunday I persuaded one such mother to let me share the latest of several testimonies that she has written and posted on a members-only website for families of SMI (serious mental illness) victims. I have withheld her name. It is the details, after all, that matter; not the specific identity.
This woman is hardly a malcontent: she is a Sunday-school teacher at her church, has had years of experience as a foster parent (including for refugee children) and is civic-minded in many other ways. What you will read below is not her first plea for help and understanding. Her son has been mistreated in all sorts of unthinkable ways: by the community and by “care-givers” as well as the violent inmate who attacked her son on Saturday night.
So, here is a rare public accounting of the ongoing private hell routinely suffered by those trapped in the sub-universe of mental illness. (I should note that this message has received a tremendous outpouring of concern and offers to help from fellow members on the site.)
Our society needs to hear many more such voices: enough voices, and enough response to those voices, to disprove the ironic title of my forthcoming book, NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.
“Ty is a victim again. Tyler our 18-year-old son was beat up last night in jail. The guy was a lot bigger than Ty. No one stopped it. Saturday night is commissary night. No one called the guards. They didn’t want to get locked in before they received their commissary. There are parts of it he doesn’t remember. They asked him a few questions, then he fell asleep. Thank God he woke up this morning. No one checked on him during the night. Why would you put a kid, who never has hurt anyone in with violent offenders? He has a headache and a black eye. He’s nauseated, feels drunk and tipsy. He was never checked on by a nurse or doctor. They don’t have a doctor, on weekends. This is concussion number 5 or 6. All have been severe. Another Traumatic brain injury! Getting beat up is nothing, new for my baby. This might not help his other problem, as he hears voices. If only they would have kept him in the hospital for long term. Out of 15 ER visits in under 2 years. Ty has only spent 2 weeks total inpatient. He’s been hearing voices for at least a year and a half. He’s never been stable. Hope they take him to the hospital to get him an MRI. Is that wishful thinking? He’s is going to see a forensic psychiatrist next month. Prayers, ya all! It’s us again! One song Ty is playing every instrument seperately, then mixed, in ghostbusters. The other song is my grandson, singing and Ty is playing. Ty wrote this song one Sat. afternoon In 15 mins., then played it for the first time. Titled ‘We are all God’s people.’ Just wish everyone else realized this!”
Kimberlee Cooper-West is an unassuming mother, a Sunday-school teacher, and a civic volunteer who lives in a village of about a thousand people on the western border of Michigan, the state where she was born. (Not all that far, as I think of it, from the Interlochen Arts Academy, where my late son Kevin spent three happy years before succumbing to schizo-affective disorder.) Photographs on her Facebook page show her wreathed in family members, or busy at a Catholic charity event. She has had extensive experience as a foster mother. In short, she is one of the countless quiet pillars of community upon whom the cohesion of society depends.
It is a pretty safe bet that Kim West has never thought of herself as intersecting with a moment in history. And yet this intersection seems a possibility.
Kim West is the woman who a day ago gave me permission to reprint the post quoted at the top of today’s blog: a post that detailed the beating her young mentally ill son Ty endured in a jail cell from another inmate on Saturday night.
Kim had submitted her post to a site called the Circle of Comfort and Assistance, one of many “closed,” or private websites whose members are assured anonymity, and who in turn agree not to publish others’ writings without permission. She has been a sadly regular contributor.
I came across Kim West’s (latest) essay during one of my frequent visits to the CCA page. I could hardly contain my outrage, even though this kind of atrocity-account is hardly new to me. It was the accumulation of cruelty and neglect suffered by the boy that prompted me to intervene: years of unresponsive “care-givers,” draconian court decisions, hostility to the West family from within its community, and a string of prior beatings behind bars.I wrote and asked her for permission to reprint on this blog. I have made similar requests to other contributors in the past; have been turned down; and have honored their understandable wishes for privacy. Kim agreed. And this morning (Monday), she advanced farther out of the cold, into the light. She gave me permission to go public with her name, her family’s location, and more particulars of her son’s horrific–but not uncommon–treatment by the “normal” world around him.
I should also mention that Kim West’s fellow CCA members were also stirred to fury and compassion. A long thread of reactions to her complaint offered equal measures of sympathy, excoriations of the region’s mental-health “system,” and generous helpings of advice: get a lawyer. Contact the ACLU. Call the governor and your representatives in Congress. Alert a newspaper or three to what is going on. Raise hell. At least one of them, Marie McAuley Abbott, of Pontiac, Michigan, the mother of a mentally ill son named Kyle, decided today that she would join with Kim. She posted, and gave me permission to re-post:
“Kyle has been without any power since last Wed. No one from CMH or his guardian has called to check on him! My daughter picked him up and kept him for awhile and now I have him. I live an hour from him! He could be laying somewhere dead and they would never know. They are in charge of him! I’m sorry for all the other people in his complex with no one looking out for them!”
Until Kim West, and now Marie Abbott, decided to step out of the cold and into the light—into what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is”—calls to action from within the world of the afflicted have largely fallen on deaf, or at least closed ears.
For decades. For centuries.
Families and friends of the insane do not want to talk about their, and the victim’s, problems. They choose to draw a protective blanket of silence around themselves, for the same reasons of combat veterans have done, and families of cancer victims.
The reasons have to do with the dread of stigma and shame, and even reprisal.
If I tell the truth about what I saw and did in the war, my buddies will call me a rat. And a crybaby. If I talk about my night-sweats and nightmares and heavy drinking, they’ll laugh and say I couldn’t take it. Coward. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of cancer:
If I talk about my husband’s cancer or put that into the obituary when he dies, my friends will find it sickening and turn away. Or they’ll think maybe I’ve got it too, and it’s catching. And anyway, it’s unspeakable.
Or in the case of severe mental illness:
If word of this gets out, people will think my daughter is a monster. They’ll think my son is a criminal. Or that I gave it to him. Or they won’t think at all; they’ll just want her put away somewhere, out of sight. They think crazy people aren’t even human anyway.
Or bigotry to that effect.
This silence has devastated mentally ill individuals, and it has devastated the sub-universe of the insane. The silence has erased mad-people’s human identity and rendered them mere abstractions. What’s the problem with slashing public spending for. . .abstractions? Why be concerned if an abstraction gets beat up in jail, or left homeless, or shot dead in the street?
Because of this pervasive self-inflicted silence, the persecution of the mentally ill has not changed in many ways since the opening of Bedlam Asylum. Seven hundred years ago.
And now a quiet church-going community volunteer and family woman in a Wisconsin village has said to herself and to the world,
I am going to be silent no more.
This is the way mass movements begin. With a quiet mother deciding, No more. With a mild assistant department-store tailor deciding that she did not want to move to the back of the bus. With a sickly woman visiting insane asylums in Massachusetts and coming back to report on what she had found. With a tiny legal representative decided to march two hundred forty-one miles from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, on the coast of the Arabian Sea, in India, to pound salt.
Lest anyone think that the possibilities I’m imagining here are overblown, let us be clear: as I write, the interests—including the survival interests—of insanity victims in America are in extremis. The Republican president and the Republican-controlled Congress seem to have it within their grasp to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and with it, the most important source of funding for hospitals, care centers, doctors, and medications essential to these victims’ continuing status as human beings.
The mighty lords of politics in our time could not care less about any of this. It is going to be up to the small, quiet women of our society, the unacknowledged pillars of our little communities, to save the insane.
Kimberlee Cooper-West, Marie Abbott—this is your moment. History is waiting.
Watch “Got us Fallin In Love Again, Usher, by Ty West” on YouTube
Watch “Ghostbusters, remix by Ty West” on YouTube
Watch “We Are All God’s People, written by Tyler West” on YouTube
Ballads were Dean’s specialty. Not just playing and singing, but writing them, summoning up the emerging poet inside. During an especially painful period in his young life, Dean turned to the guitar for solace. He practiced technique obsessively. After a couple of years, he and Kevin were performing wonderful duets at bars and coffee houses in Colorado and elsewhere. Dean wrote and sang lead; Kev contributed harmony and sublime solos.
But Dean recorded (on home equipment) some pieces on his own, pieces that showed strong promise of a career as a singer-songwriter. After Kevin’s death in 2005, Dean put his guitar away and has not played it seriously since. But these three tunes offer a radiant glimpse into what might have been.
In my previous post, I speculated on the dangers of the GOP congress’s rollback of President Obama’s strictures on permitting the sale of firearms to serious mentally ill people. Here is an example of what can go wrong: A warning, a gun sale and tragic consequences
You may have missed it, given the uncapped pipeline of news raging out of Washington, but on Friday, February 28, President Trump signed into law a Republican-backed measure to restore gun-owning rights to people afflicted with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. The rollback would relieve some 75 thousand mentally ill people from accountability to background checks.Trump’s action struck down a congressional regulation spurred by President Obama as a response to the notorious 2012 massacre of 20 young schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut. That particular butchery was carried out, via a (legally purchased) semiautomatic Bushmaster XM 15-E2S assault rifle, by the 20-year-old Adam Lanza in Newton, Connecticut. Lanza had begun that morning by putting four bullets into the head of his mother at their home with a (legally purchased) .22-caliber Savage MK II-F bolt action rifle. Then, carrying the Bushmaster and two (legally purchased) handguns, a Glock 20SF and a 9 mm Sig Sauer P226, Lanza climbed into the family car and drove off to the nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. He used the Bushmaster to shoot his way through a locked front-entrance door, then stalked the corridors and classrooms, gunning down children and teachers in small random clusters. In addition to his tally of 6- and 7-year-olds, Lanza murdered the principal, the school psychologist, three teachers and a teacher’s aide, and wounded two teachers. At least two of the teachers had been shielding children with their bodies when the Bushmaster’s bullets struck them. The dead teachers included the school psychologist and a part-time behavioral therapist.
Lanza, who had methodically paused to reload in the course of his meandering spree, then withdrew the Glock and shot himself in the head as police closed in.
A search into voluminous police reports later revealed that the young man underwent consultation at the Yale Child Study Center as an adolescent, and had been prescribed an antidepressant. The files revealed no diagnosis of serious mental illness.
Obama’s measure had infuriated Republicans and the National Rifle Association from the outset. (Technically, the rule required the Social Security Administration to inform the FBI about disability insurance recipients with mental impairments—and who needed a third party to manage their benefits–effectively disqualifying them from buying guns.)
It was the Republican congressman Sam Johnson of Texas who introduced legislation to block the bill. (Around this same time, in late 2016, Johnson, in his role as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, also released a plan that would drastically reduce that program’s benefits.)
Johnson’s GOP colleagues (along, of course, with the National Rifle Association) had condemned the Obama order as unconstitutional. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, according to one report (https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2017-02-14/senate-wants-to-block-rule-on-guns-and-mentally-ill), went so far as to predict that before you knew it, the order would be keeping folks with eating and sleeping disorders from buying guns! (This line of reasoning might qualify as a suitable Republican party motto in its Latin form, Reductio ad Absurdum.)All of which is by way of saying—brace yourself—that yet another of the most morally fraught public crises of our time, the question of powerful firearms in the hands of the mentally ill, has been distilled into ideology.
Let me acknowledge the two most formidable arguments posed by those who agree with the congressional GOPs who voted to roll back the rule.
One argument involves the impossibility of determining who, among the mentally ill, is a threat to commit deadly violence, and who is not. Homicidal schizophrenia is not predictable. Mental illness itself is not predictable. Sandy Hook was not predictable. (See Adam Lanza.) Therefore, the Obama rule was prejudicial, to the disadvantage of nonviolent people with serious mental illnesses. Or so one may persuasively argue.
The other argument restates the familiar Second Amendment case held by gun-rights advocates: restricting firearms possession by anyone is unconstitutional. Period.
Is there a logically airtight counter-argument to these positions? If there is, you won’t find it here. I am not by temperament an absolutist—not on any topic. Dammit. I kind of envy those who are, though I don’t much care to be around them. Absolutism, like carpet-bombing, gets rid of a lot of thorny impediments. It just ain’t my style.
And yet I believe that the new Trump law is wrong; an unnecessary risk to public safety, including the safety of people with eating and sleeping disorders; and an affront to those trying hard to invest the troubled American mental healthcare scene with clarity and moral purpose. I’ll explain, in my timorous, hanky-twisting way:
Schizophrenia is different. Guns are different. Each is different from its category on an order of magnitude that sets it apart from recourse to fixed ideas. Each poses a unique menace to safety, to the Self, to human life. When combined—when a firearm is made accessible to a schizophrenic person—these menaces increase in potency, even though any given afflicted gun-owner is statistically unlikely to commit violence.
Let’s take guns first. What is there left to say? Guns are instruments of killing. Increasingly, rationalizations aside, they are manufactured specifically to kill people. In this they are categorically different from (more intentionally lethal than) any other consumer product. The ideology of unconstrained firearms ownership has survived and hardened in the face of every interrogation of the Second Amendment’s ambiguities, every conceivable appeal to moral restraint, the safety of children in the household, common sense, self-evidently sensible safety measures. No argument I can make here will shift one grain of sand in that desolate desert. I might mention, for example, that my younger brother Jim, in the midst of a marital crisis in the 1970s, turned his hunting shotgun on himself and blew a hole in his head, leaving a widow and two young daughters. (Jim was untreated for any mental illness, and I do not take up his suicide in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.) The responses to such tragedies from the gun-rights people are inscribed in the cosmos: Tough titty. These things happen. Shoulda seen a shrink. Law-abiding citizens’ rights. The only way to deter a suicidal man with a gun is with. . .
So let’s move on to schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia (along with its related afflictions such as bipolarity) is a brain disorder without parallel in human history. It is not a mood, reparable by therapy or good fortune. It is not an attitude, responsive to correction or coercion. It is not curable, though in many of the afflicted its symptoms may be controlled by antipsychotic medication. Such medication is resisted by a great many sufferers, whose judgment is crippled by the frequent companion scourge known as anosognosia, or the incapacity to understand that one is ill. The potential calamities enabled by anosognosia are self-evident. Thus, at least as it seems to me and thousands of others, schizophrenia victims require care and treatment that is different—more case-specific, more morally nuanced and always more undergirded with psychiatric insight—from treatment given to “normal” people in crises. This may mean, amidst hundreds of other considerations, keeping firearms out of the reach of certain mentally ill people—say, disability insurance recipients with mental impairments and who needed a third party to manage their benefits.
For understandable reasons—furthering fear and stigma, for instance—mental-illness advocates hesitate to emphasize or even admit the fact that psychosis and guns can combine to spread carnage. (This is one reason why the lessons of Sandy Hook have remained tragically muted.) Yet, as D.J. Jaffe, the outspoken director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization, has written: “. . .4 percent of those with mental illness are affected by serious ailments, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, causing them to hallucinate or become delusional and psychotic. When these people go untreated they do have a higher incidence of violence than the general population. http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/violence-statistics.html It’s an unpleasant truth that the mental health industry has encouraged politicians to ignore. Without recognizing the problem, policymakers won’t take steps to fix it.”
And so here we are, preparing to cope with one more feckless and gratuitous disruption of the arduous project to make society safer—not only for potential victims of people in violent psychosis, but for the mentally ill themselves.
I will not pretend to vouch absolutely for the nosological claims I have advanced here. No one can. That is due to schizophrenia’s properties as different.
But enough disclaiming. I believe that mixing guns and serious mental illness is an abomination.