Sandy Hook shooting's glare illumines cracks in mental health care (+video)
Though the mental health of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza is unclear, the massacre has spawned extensive discussion on the mental health care system. That could be helpful or harmful.
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Her post quickly earned accolades for her courage and honesty, as well as detractors, particularly from those who worried she was doing even more to link mental illness with violence in readers' minds – even though the vast majority of those with mental illness never become violent. In particular, numerous families dealing with autism have been quick to dispel any notion that autism (or Asperger’s) is linked with violence.Skip to next paragraph
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Oversimplifying “mental illness” – already an extremely broad category – as the problem means “you’re tarring these millions of young people within this category that does get stigmatized, and reduces their opportunities in life in a lot of ways,” says Robert Whitaker, a science writer and author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America.” “Whenever this conversation happens, we need to ... remember that what we want to do well as a society is be a society that tolerates differences, helps people in distress, and calls on our better self and not on our fearful self.”
Links to mass shootings
But others – while emphasizing that most mentally ill people are not violent – also agree that mental illness, often untreated or undiagnosed, has been a factor in many high-profile shootings, including Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Gabrielle Giffords incident in Tucson, Ariz.
In looking at recent mass killings, at least half were associated with serious mental illness, says E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va. And while it’s not clear yet what was behind last week's rampage, or whether it was preventable, some of them – including the Tucson shooting and the Colorado one earlier this year – probably were preventable, given the warning signs, Dr. Torrey says.
Torrey is an advocate for, among other things, easier avenues for involuntary commitment.
“At this point,” he says, “we’re so bent up on civil liberties that the screen we’ve set up to pick up people who are potentially dangerous has huge holes in it, and almost everyone sifts through.” In most states, he adds, people scared about what a family member might do are told that person has to break a law first before any action can be taken.
But committing or treating someone involuntarily is a huge and often traumatic step, Mr. Whitaker notes. “If we’re a freedom-loving people, doing that sort of thing ought to give us pause.... Is there evidence that forced commitment reduces risk of violence? I don’t know.”
Moreover, he says, while he is a big advocate of helping people access treatment, there are also dangers that come with certain antipsychotic drugs that have been linked to homicidal thoughts in rare instances. And without careful monitoring, some drugs may actually lead to some episodes of violence. Lanza, according to some reports, was taking an antipsychotic associated with those side effects.
“There’s a knee-jerk response to get people in treatment and that will solve everything, but we have to ask, does treatment in any way pose a risk?” Whitaker says.
System under stress
One thing that most mental-health experts can agree on is the current system isn’t meeting the needs of many individuals.