Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. suffers from schizophrenia; also John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman. More to the point, rampage shooter Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in 2007, had been in and out of treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, but never hospitalized for long enough to bring him back to reality.
Nobody knew what to do about Jared L. Loughner, who killed six people while attempting to murder Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson. Same disease. After James Holmes began showing signs of advancing psychosis, University of Colorado officials more or less, well, “washed their hands of him” would be a judgmental way to put it. Then he killed 24 strangers attending a Batman movie in Aurora, CO. He reportedly mailed a notebook describing his mad plans to a university psychiatrist, which she received only after the fact.
With the possible exception of Lanza, all of these killers had exhibited overt symptoms of psychosis previous to their explosive criminal acts. They belonged in locked-down psychiatric hospitals under medical treatment — whether voluntarily or not. Nobody in Seung-Hui Cho’s or James Holmes’ state of mind can meaningfully decide these things for themselves.
Properly speaking, psychosis has no rights.
Yet the biggest reason people don’t act is that for practical purposes, ill-considered laws make involuntary commitment somewhere between difficult and impossible. Sources told New York Times columnist Joe Nocera that Connecticut makes it so hard to get somebody committed to a psychiatric hospital against their will that Nancy Lanza probably couldn’t have done anything had she tried. (And risked antagonizing her son in the process.)
“The state and federal rules around mental illness,” Nocera writes “are built upon a delusion: that the sickest among us should always be in control of their own treatment, and that deinstitutionalization is the more humane route.”
A liberal delusion, mainly. The good news is that anti-psychotic medications work; diseased minds can be treated. Putting somebody into a psychiatric ward for 30 days shouldn’t be as simple as a 911 call, but neither should it require the near-equivalent of a criminal trial.
Just as with gun control, lives hang in the balance.
Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci
Copyright 2013 The National Memo