Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Grief Knocks At The Nation's Door

My heart aches for Newtown, Connecticut and all of the people there, for the friends and family of those who were killed, for the parents of children and family of adults who survived yesterday's savagery.

The world is a darker place today for all of us, as we all weep for what might have been for all of them.

As we try to make any sense at all of something like this, I would like to once again say that there is no real mental health system in this country.  We treat mental illness as if it only affects the person facing it and no one else, and thus it isn't our business.  But it is.

When I was in private practice and later an assistant prosecutor, so often the only time we could get someone any mental health intervention -- including needed medicine to keep them on a more even keel -- was when they had been arrested and were under court supervised probation or incarcerated.  Think about that for a second:  in order to get treatment for a mental illness, that person had to first commit a crime that would be bad enough to require incarceration or court-ordered probation supervision.

That is so wrong on so many levels at once.

But the worst is that innocent victims had to get in the way in order for any mental health intervention to be forthcoming. Think about the man who shot Gabby Giffords, or the man who shot up that movie theater, or...well, you start to see a pattern, don't you?

The lack of mental health structure in this country is dangerous.  The utter lack of communication from state to state is also dangerous.  It is how sexual predators slip through the cracks.

Yes, protections for privacy need to be in place.  Absolutely.  And yes, any system is going to have cracks -- lord knows I saw that first hand when I was in the prosecutor's office all those years ago.

But we cannot keep ignoring the elephant in the room:  far too often, mental health treatment only comes to an individual who desperately, violently needs it only after an innocent has paid all to high a price.

Everything cannot be prevented.  Madness and evil are always going to exist without any warning signs or signals beforehand, and that is just the truth of it.  Every crime cannot be prevented beforehand, no matter how hard we may all try.

But what we are doing now in terms of no real mental health plan in this country?  When grief knocks on the nation's door this loudly, it is time we all woke up and began to think -- really, really think -- long and hard about what we ought to be doing more effectively.  This is as good a time as any to start this conversation.

(Photo via Mauro Luna.)

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