Today, just as the Newtown story was starting to hit Twitter, I was using it to catch up on another story.
A young woman we are acquainted with in passing has suffered what I can only describe as a complete mental breakdown. I do not describe her situation lightly: 8 months ago she was running for political office, caring for her two young children, and participating actively in her community. Today, she believes that she is Mary, Mother of God, that the child in her womb is Jesus, and that the father of that child is Jehovah, with whom she regularly has sex. She takes to Twitter to pronounce God’s judgment on all who oppose her, particularly the shelter workers who have removed her from their shelters due to their inability to adequately house her in those situations, as well as the relative with whom her children are staying. She has been sleeping on park benches for months.
As I read through her description of her life, it’s not hard to imagine her screaming about judgment in the street, being arrested, being released, being kicked out of one shelter after another, spending her nights outside as it gets colder and colder here. It’s also not hard to imagine how non-existent her prenatal care must be, and it’s all too easy to imagine horrifying scenarios befalling both her and her child should she not get proper treatment before the child is born.
Her condition has been reported to police and every social service agency we can think of, and there’s basically nothing that can be done. So she continues to roam the streets, screaming at crowds about demons and judgment, sleeping on the street, and possibly being raped by whoever this person is that she has decided is Jehovah God.
Why am I telling you this, today of all days?
Here’s the thing, you guys: As long as the debate that ensues after these kinds of events is ONLY about gun control, it’s a moot point. Almost by definition, anyone who shoots up a school or a movie theater is really not well and is exactly the kind of person we all agree should not have access to guns.
The real point is this: We are doing a reprehensibly poor job of caring for the mentally ill, at all parts of the socio-economic spectrum.
I would like people who (correctly) assert that a gun in the hands of a responsible, law-abiding citizen is not the problem and this is a case of an ill person who became violent to acknowledge that this loss of sanity does not just happen in a vacuum and we can, should, and must do better at helping people to not deteriorate to that point. Asserting that a mentally ill person determined to commit violence would still do so with or without guns carries with it the pretty staggering corollary that we need to work a lot harder at helping people not get so sick that they lose their grip on sanity.
Similarly, I would like people who (again correctly) assert that yeah, the shooter was violent anyway but at least without access to guns he would have killed many fewer people to acknowledge that they’re basically conceding the existence of violent murderers and deciding that stopping them after they’ve only killed one or two schoolchildren might be the best we can hope for. Taking the gun out of the shooter’s hands only reduces the body count; it does not save his parents. We must work harder at getting people treated in earlier stages of their illness so that they can be helped before their illnesses turn them into murderers.
No, obviously not every person with a mental illness is potentially violent or delusional. But without proper treatment, some are. And still others deteriorate without treatment in less obvious, but still devastating ways.
Proper treatment of mental illness not a bleeding-heart act of charity we can ill-afford in these trying economic times, this is a practical imperative if we are serious about preventing future massacres. It will be expensive. It will require cultural shifts that destigmatize treatment (both in terms of talk therapy as well as drugs). It will require the hard work of trying to find the balance between respecting peoples’ individual rights to live as they choose with the knowledge that illness can twist the minds making those choices. But we must tackle this problem; the fact that it’s hard only makes it more important.
THIS is the debate we have to have.