Last Updated:April 19 @ 07:19 am

Charen: Missing the Point about Mass Shootings

By Mona Charen

Public discussion and debate about the Aurora, Colo., horror has missed the point. With numbing predictability, liberal opinion leaders in the press have focused on gun laws as the potential solution for such atrocities, while conservatives have responded that maniacs will find ways to kill people and therefore, nothing can be done about rampage shootings. Others have speculated that our excessively violent entertainments are tipping borderline types into spasms of real violence.

I'm no fan of degraded entertainment, yet I suspect that saturation media coverage of these events is probably more culpable. But surely a more fruitful avenue of inquiry concerns our utterly dysfunctional mental health system. We don't know much about the killer in Colorado yet, but in many cases of rampage shootings, family members, colleagues or teachers saw signs of trouble before the eruption of violence. Family reports of disturbing behavior are often not enough because too many state laws require that a person be "imminently dangerous" before he can be involuntarily committed -- even for a short time. Thus, we have failed utterly to protect those in dire need of treatment and also placed society at increased risk from the minority of mentally ill people who are dangerous.

For years, mental health authorities assured us that the mentally ill were no more dangerous than the average person. That's true of most, but not all. As Dr. E. Fuller Torrey documents in his essential book, "The Insanity Offense," rates of violence among the untreated mentally ill are significantly higher than among the general population and are also much higher than among those receiving medication. Between 5 and 10 percent of the untreated seriously mentally ill will commit violent crimes in any given year, accounting for at least 5 percent of homicides in the United States (a huge percentage in a nation of more than 300 million). For rampage crimes, such as the Aurora attack, the percentage of mentally ill perpetrators is much greater, as high as 50 percent.

Since the 1960s, when deinstitutionalization became intellectually fashionable and fiscally alluring to states looking to save money, the mentally ill have been dumped onto the streets. Today 95 percent of the in-patient beds that were available for psychiatric patients in 1955 are gone. The Treatment Advocacy Center explains that, "The consequences of the severe shortage of public psychiatric beds include increased homelessness; the incarceration of mentally ill individuals in jails and prisons; emergency rooms being overrun with patients waiting for a psychiatric bed; and an increase in violent behavior, including homicides, in communities across the nation." Imagine if we treated the mentally retarded this way.

In many cases of mental illness, a belief that one is not in need of treatment is part of the sickness. Yet most studies show that the majority of those who are medicated against their wishes retroactively approve and believe it should be done again if necessary. In New York, 62 percent reported that being ordered by a court into treatment was a good thing for them.

Additionally, a number of avenues are available to ensure that the mentally ill continue to take their medicines once discharged. Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and other public benefits can be tied to compliance. As in the case of tuberculosis, patients can be required, on pain of jail or loss of benefits, to take their medicines in the presence of a health professional.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, 42 states have adopted Assisted Outpatient Treatment, or AOT, programs, but only a minority uses them. AOTs require that patients comply with their treatment regimens or risk losing their housing and the right to live in the community. In New York, only 34 percent of patients regularly took their medicine before the AOT was implemented. Afterwards, 69 percent did so, resulting in a marked decline in hospital admissions. Other states have found that AOTs also reduced homelessness and the risk of being victimized among the mentally ill. In North Carolina, the use of AOTs also resulted in a decline in arrests from 45 percent to 12 percent in one year.

For the most dangerous mentally ill, estimated to number about 40,000 nationwide, a red-flag alert system could be adopted that would give mental health professionals, police and firearms dealers warning. With the proper safeguards, such a system would permit families of the mentally ill to get help for their relatives, as well as provide warnings to society.

There are partial solutions to atrocities like that in Colorado, but they require abandoning the extreme civil libertarian approach that has marked the treatment -- or mistreatment -- of the mentally ill for the past half-century.

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5 Comments

  1. PATRIOTComment by PATRIOT
    July 24, 2012 @ 6:58 am

    The author of this article has stepped up to the plate with the truth about America’s problems with the mentally ill. Liberal views toward mental illness and governments desire to save money has allowed the mentally ill freedom that in many cases presents a threat to society. The threat is not always a criminal one but the mentally ill are given the same access to the civil court system as anyone else. A mentally ill individual plus an unethical attorney can destroy an honest business or individual. I know this first hand because it happened to me. Those that present a threat to society should be treated in a manner commensurate with their illness.

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  2. jdb121Comment by jdb121
    July 24, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    If the lack of a logically-justifiable motivation for the perpetration of a crime (such as: the goal of money and robbing a bank) is viewed as the differentiating factor between mental illness and a “criminal mind” (which is prosecutable for purposes of affixing a penalty and correction), the circumstances of the individual contribute to the determination to do what s/he does, which is a criminal act, whether mentally ill or distinguishably criminal.
    If the end justifies the means, it is criminal or reasonably justifiable.
    If the end does not justify the means, or if the means is used for no logical end or goal, it is mental illness.
    Had anyone in the theater been armed and had shot the perpetrator of the crime, it would have been justifiable homicide (a lesser evil, albeit of the same means, to prevent a greater evil) whether mental illness were considered to be the reason for the behavior or not. The reaction is logical and justifiable relative to the causal action which is offensive or criminal according to the law which is right.

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  3. jcmooreComment by jcmoore
    July 24, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    Restrictive gun laws prohibit law abiding citizens their RIGHTS to self protection with, absolutely, no affect on the actions of criminals. Why is that so difficult for the liberal public to understand? Of course, liberal politicians are only interested in gaining control over citizens to turn them into subjects.

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  4. BillzillaComment by Billzilla
    July 24, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    Having once cared for a mentally ill person, I can say without reservation, that the average person, whether parent, grandparent, or any friend or relative, is woefully ill equipped to deal with that mentally ill person.

    Whether or not the shooter in this latest tragedy is mentally ill, I cannot say. Certainly I can’t believe that anyone who is full possession of their faculties would commit such a horrific, senseless crime. However I really do believe; that the senseless violence, the violence without consequences, that is seen daily on our screens large and small, has been a contributing factor. Since businesses spend large sums for commercials, with the expectation that the commercials will induce viewers to buy their products: How is it that the slaughter seen on the same screens, somehow may not induce a mentally ill individual to mimic what they’ve seen in a movie, or on television? Just wondering.

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    • genesalComment by genesal
      July 24, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

      That’s the line between being mentally ill and being evil. This man was meticulous, crafty, witty, premeditated. Evil.

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