Pardon the sarcasm. I am steaming. We’re still in Bedlam. The mad, including afflicted children, are still getting gunned down by cops who are clueless, untrained, or worse. Linden Cameron of Salt Lake City, riddled with police bullets on Friday for the crime of running in fear and confusion, has survived, so far. Yet our severely brain-damaged mental healthcare system–including jails, prisons, and vicious trigger-happy cops–remains mired in its historic ignorance, incompetence and, yes, cruelty.
We look, we pray, to our political leaders to at least keep “crazy people” from the worst of it; from incidents like this. A little kid, dammit! Instead–irony of ironies–the current political campaign season, as deranged in its way as are our systems of care–has managed only to push this urgent issue further into the dark margins.
This despite the unflagging work of reform advocates such as Leslie and Scott Carpenter, who pled our community’s case to every Democratic presidential candidate who passed through Iowa this summer. And the sisters C.J. Hanson and Linda Rippee, who have battled across decades to secure help for their drastically damaged street-wandering brother Mark, only to be met with stony indifference from pols at the municipal, county and state levels in California. You may find their story scattered through several entries in this blog.
And many, many others.
To essentially no avail.
It just seems that no one cares about crazy people.
I sit here at my computer screen and I think: 13-year-old. Unarmed. In a mental crisis. His mother calls the police. And a wolfpack of cops shows up and empties several rounds of bullets into his small young body. Intestines. Bladder. Shoulder. Ankles.
Bob Dylan’s lyric in “Oxford Town,” released fifty-eight years ago, remains the definitive commentary on the subject:
In the aftermath of two traumatic mass shootings, the president re-invokes a horrid, distorted falsehood about the mentally ill.
And there it is: history’s defining damnation of sufferers of incurable damage to the brain, distilled into a three-word phrase of transcendent ugliness and stunted understanding.
The phrase was uttered on Monday. It was uttered to identify the provenance of the weekend’s massacres by shooters using legally purchased high-capacity semi-automatic weapons toward their collective harvest of 31 people dead and some 50 wounded.
The phrase was uttered by the President of the United States. It left stains, stains which, in moral and intellectual terms, replicated the stains of blood shed by the shooters’ victims.
Blaming “mentally ill monsters” (or “nut jobs,” or “wackos,” or “lunatics”) for such carnage is a morally repugnant, if time-tested device for shifting the public’s passion for safety away from gun control and toward the presumed demons in our midst. The president could not have been more transparent in exploiting the device. “Mental illness and hatred pulls [sic] the trigger, not the gun,” he instructed us, going on to label one of the shooters as “another twisted monster.”
In fact, it is a settled truth in psychiatric research that victims of brain afflictions are no more prone to violence than the general population. The prominent advocate Dj Jaffe makes an important stipulation: that the untreated mentally ill—those not stabilized by antipsychotic medications—can be more likely to cause harm to themselves or others. Still, implying that mental illness itself equates to degenerate aggression serves only to further isolate and punish the most helpless members of our society; to herd them back toward the dark corners and confinements of “insane asylum” days.
And herein lies the “intellectual” stain that President Trump’s words help spread: most people—like the president himself—do not understand mental illness: what it means, how it occurs, how it differentiates, why its victims behave as they do, and how even its most abject sufferers can be aided, often stabilized, by medications and therapy. In this vacuum of understanding, people tend to substitute prejudice, false science, myth, and hostility toward “crazy people.”
“Serious” mental illness—the kind in question here—is rare and unique. And incurable. Unlike alcoholism or anger or depression, serious mental illness is rooted in genetic flaws of the brain. Its various names include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder—similar yet not interchangeable conditions. It results in a loss of reason and rational control; hallucinations and the hearing of voices; alienation from family and friends; and, yes, sometimes—rarely—violence.
My wife and I have educated ourselves about serious mental illness because we’ve had to. It invaded our family several years ago, causing the suicide of a beloved son. Unfortunately, this is the painful route to understanding for most people: a loved one is stricken.
The costs of this cluelessness describe a cone of destruction that widens from the stricken individual through society.
The cone draws in and ravages parents and siblings of the stricken. It can cripple the finances of families without adequate insurance to cover treatment and medications. It drains human capital from the workforce, and thus economic revenue. It reduces the budgets of hospitals that can’t get reimbursement for their mentally ill patients. It overburdens police, whose lack of training and, sometimes, self-restraint, can result in death by gunshot of unarmed people in psychosis. It coarsens our criminal-justice system: think of schizophrenic adolescents hustled into jail by untrained or uncaring judges, where they await trial—often for weeks and months—while their unmedicated psychosis deepens. Think of solitary confinement. Think of a brain-afflicted child, perhaps your own (as countless parents must) ensorcelled in a cell, abused by fellow inmates and guards, with no end in sight, no comprehension. No hope.
Now think about “mentally ill monsters.”
Mentally ill monsters are not the source of our current crisis of public massacres. The monster is the gun: too many guns, with too little restraint and oversight regarding purchase. To his credit, President Trump gave lip service to keeping guns away from those “who pose a grave risk to public safety,” and to strengthening gun laws generally.
But leave the gun issue aside. Part of any president’s duty—a foundation of his “bully pulpit”—is to educate his fellow citizens on matters of complexity and urgent public import. The nature of serious mental illness, and the reclamation of its victims, comprise one such matter. The president could make a great, galvanizing contribution to ending the centuries-old oppression of “crazy people.” He could lead us in that direction. He could educate us. But first he must educate himself.
The violent, trigger-happy policeman is a recurring actor in media accounts of mentally ill people meeting their doom on the streets, in their homes, and in jail. In NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, and on my blog, I myself have offered several accounts of unarmed victims of psychosis being gunned down by poorly trained, sometimes paranoid officers, and of the everlasting grief that descends upon the victims’ families.
The “killer cop” has become a stereotype to many in the mental illness “sub-nation.” All too often, the stereotype is true. Yet it is important that we recognize the unfairness of letting the stereotype stand for universal reality. The link below should be required clicking. It directs us to an essay written by Andy O’Hara, a retired 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. The topic is the high rate of suicide among policemen in this country, and the police culture of silence that discourages these stressed-out men and women from seeking help.
I have retrieved this essay from the website of the excellent Marshall Foundation, a leading source of journalism about the criminal justice system.
It’s Time We Talk
About Police Suicide
More cops die of suicide than die of
shootings and traffic accidents combined.
RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S deputy Derek Fish was just 28 and had only been on the job six years when he committed suicide. According to reports, Fish was coming off a routine shift. He returned his cruiser to the lot at his station and there, at the lot, he shot himself with his service revolver. Fish was, according to his colleagues, an outstanding officer who had recently been promoted. His was the third suicide in his department since 2001.