Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

"Support Mental Health or I’ll Kill You."

September 27, 2013

That message got attention. We wore it on buttons in Tallahassee, back in the golden age of reform in the 1970s under Governor Reuben Askew. Tampa’s George Sheldon had been a campaign aide to Askew, and as I recall, George created the buttons when he worked in the mental health field before winning election to the legislature in 1974. Or it may have been later, and the idea may have come from Budd Belle, a champion for all causes connected with those who cannot help themselves.
Budd is dead now, but she lives on in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. George is a top Washington official with Health and Human Services, where he is helping HHS chief Kathleen Sibelius implement the Affordable Care Act. More commonly known as Obamacare (a term that increasingly is not intended as pejorative), the new law improves the chances that the mentally ill will be treated. You know, though, that this will not happen nearly fast enough to save us from ourselves.
I thought about this recently, when another demented man used a gun to kill a dozen people at the Washington Navy Yard. The media mostly focused on how he got into the supposedly secure facility – and I know from personal experience that it is quite secure. I had to jump through identity-proving hoops several decades ago, when I went there to obtain photos for my American Women and World War II, which was published back in 1990.
(I wanted pictures of the Navy Nurse Corps, and when I finally got in, the personnel were helpful about finding photos that highlighted the bravery of these women. Japan bombed some of the hospital ships on which they served, even though the ships clearly were marked with the Red Cross. The Navy also charged me less than most agencies for the use of the pictures – and yes, the federal government routinely charges such fees. That everything in DC is a giveaway is a great myth.)
But back to the Navy Yard and the gunman. Further investigation showed that he had been discharged from the Navy because of indications of mental instability – but a private defense contractor nonetheless hired him. He was allowed to keep his security badge, which easily enabled him to walk through security – with a rifle! Why? Why should anyone coming from outside be permitted to carry an obvious long gun into any public facility?
This is just crazy. We truly are inviting the mentally ill to kill us when we fail to identify and treat them -- and worse, when we allow them to carry weapons. Did you see, by the way, that Iowa issues gun permits to blind people? And the story about the two guys with concealed permits who shot each other in a Michigan road rage incident? Maybe we can solve the problem that way, but it would take a while.
Seriously and unfortunately, we have become inured to guys who use guns to express their lunacy. Every month or two, the story is repeated. A movie theater in Colorado, an elementary school in Connecticut, a military installation in Texas, a grocery store in Arizona, a temple in Wisconsin, a coffeehouse in Seattle and a pancake restaurant in Nevada. A college in West Virginia and another in Oakland, and women getting their hair done in a California salon. An aircraft factory in Mississippi, a nursing home in North Carolina, a department store in Nebraska, a Christian rock concert in Fort Worth, and an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania.
Nor is that the complete list. Too many. Too much. Our hearts break again and again, and we must stop ourselves from repeating that pain. Anything else is insanity. Our failure to support mental health literally is killing us.

* * *

Since the 1980s, when comparisons with similar nations began, records show that mass murders are twenty times more likely to occur in the US than anywhere else in the developed world. Your chances of dying from a bullet shot by a deranged stranger are just hugely higher if you are in America. Are the
Tea Party “patriots” proud of this? Is the killing of innocent people their idea of American exceptionalism?
Criminals, in fact, are the most profound believers in exceptionalism – their own. Most view themselves as an exception to all rules. From childhood on, they exhibit signs of becoming societal outsiders who are unable to empathize with others. They develop habits of projecting blame onto others and denying responsibility for their own behavior. They usually see themselves as smarter than authorities – be it teachers or cops – and often equate kindness with weakness. Ultimately most become incapable of admitting personal guilt or failure, and they view even outrageously reprehensible acts as justified in their particular case.
Most would not label themselves mentally ill, but experts agree that there is strong correlation between mental illness and crime. A 2006 study of the federal prison system showed that more than half of inmates suffered from some mental illness – and the federal system gets “the good guys,” mostly white-collar criminals who are not guilty of violent crime. State prisons house the others, and a disturbed mind is the major reason why they are there. They committed evil because their brains are wired in such a way that assault and murder makes sense to them. Many are paranoid and firmly believe that they “stood their ground” and committed their crimes in self-defense.
A school psychologist might have been able to channel them in a better direction – but almost none of our schools have such fulltime. Guidance councilors seldom have time for in-depth counseling, as their chief job priority is creating students’ schedules, with the perfectly appropriate aim of finding the right vocational choice for kids and/or getting them into college. The people we call “school resource officers” actually are cops, complete with uniforms. Their job is security, not identifying the child who is on his way to becoming a psychopath.
We could go a long way to saving both money and lives if we made a national commitment to place at least one psychologist in every school, and more in high schools. Psychology is a popular major with college students, but most of them cannot find jobs in that field. Instead, we continue to squander our money on prisons, increasingly private, profit-making prisons. We try to do damage control after the damage and the deaths are done.
On the positive side, we can be grateful that we have much better psychiatric treatment now than in the past. I’ve seen the psychiatrists who care for my schizophrenic nephew patiently prescribe new medications as they become available. These meds largely have succeeded in keeping his demons at bay and making him a happier addition to his loving family. His father is a retired Army officer, though, and I’m not sure that the lifelong illness could have been treated without the benefit of the military’s “socialized medicine.”
And finally, I have to say this. I debated a long time before writing the next paragraph, but this factor in the non-discussion is the biggest of elephants in the room.
What do all of these mass murders have in common? (Other than the ease of killing with efficient modern guns, of course.) The answer is that all of the gunmen were in fact men. Some white, some black, and some of other ethnicities, but all male.
We must research that. At a minimum, we must fund biologists who can tell us if there is correlation between criminals and chromosomal abnormalities. Scientists already have determined that an extra X chromosome in a boy reduces his IQ by about fifteen percent. That has huge implications for that child’s future, as well as for everyone else. Failure to study insanity simply is insane.

Written by Doris Weatherford for LaGaceta Published 9/27/13

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