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Mass shootings and our betrayal of the mentally ill

After every mass shooting, I write a variant of the same column. Perhaps I’ll republish this one when the next attack happens.

The increase in mass shootings over the course of the past several decades is not imaginary. In 2000, the New York Times analyzed 100 mass shootings between 1949 and 1999 and found that 73 of them had happened since 1990. Since 2000, according to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 33 more, including the recent massacre at the Navy Yard. The majority of the killers have untreated mental illness.

A significant portion of the political and journalistic worlds pretends that the solution to mass shootings is gun control. This is doctrinaire, barren thinking. For good or ill, guns have always been readily available in the United States. That has not changed in the past 50 years. The number of gun deaths has actually been declining quite steeply over the past two decades. Pew Research on Social and Demographic Trends found that the firearms homicide rate was 49 percent lower in 2010 than in 1993.

Defenders as well as opponents of gun rights in America need to lift their eyes from their prepared talking points and look at what is staring them in the face.

The guns-blazing mass attack has become the American psychosis.

Every society has mentally ill people. But the way mental illness gets expressed varies tremendously by culture. In China, Malaya, Indonesia and parts of India, patients suffer from a variety of fertility-related phobias called “genital shrinking” anxiety. Among the Japanese and Koreans, doctors often see a morbid fear of giving offense by one’s appearance.

Anorexia nervosa spread throughout the developed world in the latter part of the 20th century when thinness became the fashion ideal. Culture shapes behavior — even, or maybe especially, among the mentally ill.

American entertainment is steeped in gun violence. Most young men who spend hours playing first-person shooter games and watching endless gun violence in movies and television will never hurt anyone. But it is reasonable to wonder whether this menu of mayhem is distorted into implied permission by unsteady minds, particularly those without the guiding hand of a father at home.

Twenty-first century America prizes fame indiscriminately — to the point that the word infamy must soon disappear. We have no use for the idea it expresses. Elliot Spitzer, John McCain, Paris Hilton, Bill Gates, Aaron Alexis — they all belong to the famous club. It doesn’t matter what they did to gain admission.

Shoot a lot of innocent people and you are guaranteed to enter the club.

We have betrayed the mentally ill by drastically reducing the availability of treatment. America has roughly 5 percent of the psychiatric beds it had in the late 1950s. When Aaron Alexis called police in Rhode Island last month and complained of “voices” in his head and the “people who were sending vibrations to his body” with a “microwave machine,” he ought to have been taken to a psych unit for evaluation. Instead, police told him to avoid the “people” who were bothering him.

Psychiatric treatment is too difficult to get in every state. That’s why the mentally ill comprise 400,000 of the nation’s 2.2 million prison inmates and one-third of the nation’s homeless. In many states, even if the family members of paranoid schizophrenics beg police and medical authorities to commit someone for short-term evaluation and treatment, civil commitment laws forbid it.

With modern drugs and “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” as championed by the Treatment Advocacy Center, long-term commitment for the mentally ill is not necessary. A few simple reforms of involuntary commitment laws and mental health treatment could relieve a great deal of unnecessary suffering and avoid more awful tragedies.

Alternatively, we can continue our sterile and irrelevant gun control spitting match.



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