The tragic shooting last month in Newtown…the Aurora shooting…the shooting in Tucson…the Virginia Tech massacre…all involved mental illness. Nuts, crazy, mad, wacko – words I frequently hear used to describe the mentally ill. These people have a brain disorder, they are mentally ill, and like people with any other illness, they need medical treatment. Therein lies the problem.
Years ago when we deinstitutionalized, states passed laws making it illegal to force mentally ill adults to be treated or take their medications. Once you turn 18, you have a civil right to refuse treatment and remain mentally ill until you become suicidal or homicidal as determined by judges at commitment hearings.
I’m the mother of a bipolar son who took his life at age 40. His name was Scott. At age 27, without warning, Scotty was transformed into a different person. His became weird, maniacal, out-of-control, psychotic. He no longer required sleep. He became extremely religious…claimed that God had anointed him a prophet and commissioned him to write another book for the Bible. He developed a fixation for the President and made many attempts to get into the White House for what he thought were scheduled meetings with President Clinton. At times, he was in the Witness Protection Program along with other CIA and FBI operatives…federal agents were trying to assassinate him. He was serious and believed everything he was saying.
Following six weeks of involuntary commitment with forced meds, Scotty recovered and was able to resume his life. Treatment works. Mental illness is a lifelong illness with recurring episodes. There is currently no cure…but the good news is…mental illness is treatable. Medication compliance is the key to living with mental illness.
Scotty went on to have four additional bipolar manic episodes, each one more severe than the previous…and of a longer duration. He was committed 14 times to 11 different hospitals in five different states. Untreated mental illness ruined my son’s life; his downward course aided by this country’s broken mental health system, a system that takes hubris-like pride in protecting the individual rights of mentally ill people. In a classic case of overkill, the system’s stringent shielding prevents families from getting loved ones timely, humane treatment. Each time Scotty was allowed to go untreated for long periods of time, he sustained further brain damage. The system failed to protect Scotty when he was too ill to protect himself and left his family with the devastating shell of a severely ill man in a body ravaged by irreversible damage from untreated mental illness.
There are many people who suffer from bipolar disorder whose illness is less severe; for the most part, they manage their illness and live normal lives. Many have successful careers, happy marriages, and children. They take their medications and are proactive, not reactive, to warnings signs. Yes, they have a chronic mental illness, but they manage their illness – the illness does not manage them. These individuals are true role models for others struggling with this illness and are to be commended. Unfortunately, my son was not among these role models. He suffered from severe and persistent bipolar disorder. During a manic episode, he lost touch with reality and lacked the ability to recognize he was ill.
Severe mentally ill adults are not capable of making rational decisions regarding their treatment. Their families are the first to recognize the Code Red alerts, but patient protections have become rigid rules excluding families from patient care and exceeding common sense. In other words, families are not allowed to nip a manic episode in the bug. No, they must sit by and watch their loved one deteriorate mentally until the situation becomes an emergency. That is, the individual is pointing a gun at someone or standing on the ledge of a tall building ready to jump to his death.
My son was released by judges at commitment hearings time and time again in spite of testimony by family members, friends, neighbors who had witnessed his delusional and psychotic behavior…AND, in spite of testimony by the treating psychiatrists who recommended commitment. Upon release, he would eventually resurface in another city, another state…at which time he would again be arrested, and the commitment process started all over again. Many states have such strict commitment laws that it’s almost impossible to get people committed until they are in deep crisis or try to harm themselves or others.
Toward the end when Scotty started talking about exercising his constitutional right to bear arms to protect himself from federal agents he felt certain were trying to assassinate him, I feared he might actually purchase a gun and shoot innocent victims he mistook for federal agents. I inquired how to register Scotty’s name with the appropriate authorities to prevent this from happening; as a minimum, I wanted to at least confirm that his name was already in the FBI database that licensed firearm dealers use to run background checks on prospective buyers. Due to the privacy laws, I was unable to even confirm my son’s name was in the database.
Sane people do not commit mass murders. Only a small fraction of mentally ill people ever become violent. Yes, guns can kill. Severe mentally ill people should not be allowed to purchase them or have access to them. Untreated mental illness also kills. Combine the two…you have a tragedy waiting to happen.
Dottie Pacharis, Author, Mind on the Run: A Bipolar Chronicle, www.mindontherun.com