OPINION — In the aftermath of the Texas shooting, perhaps now is a good time to revisit how a free society should respond to mental illness. The Texas shooter, Devin Kelly, had a long and documented history of mental illness and violence. He beat his wife regularly and even beat his little boy so bad that he fractured the boy’s skull. Kelly was dishonorably discharged from the military for his illness-induced violence.
Most folks in the little town where he was from said they knew something was wrong with Kelly. A childhood friend of his wrote, “To be completely honest, I’m really not surprised this happened, and I don’t think anyone who knew him is very surprised either.” Think on that statement. Anyone who knew him should not be surprised this happened. What happened was that Kelly mercilessly murdered 26 people – and, yet, nobody was surprised that he murdered all those people? Maybe that should be the first sign for intervention. If you are not at all surprised a person could murder 26 people in cold blood, maybe you ought to pick up the phone and call somebody.
And Kelly just got crazier and crazier over time. He was able to get his hands on guns and ammo because the Air Force failed to report to law enforcement Kelly’s conviction of violence. What the Air Force could not share with anyone, even if it wanted to, was Kelly’s history of mental illness. His history of violence, not his history of mental illness, was what prevented him from purchasing firearms.
Why do we protect the mentally ill psychologically, emotionally and legally when their illness becomes a threat and detriment to society? The family of the Washington Navy Yard shooter back in 2013 knew their boy had deep mental problems – he was institutionalized for a year – but generally ignored the problem rather than confront it. It was embarrassing to the family and uncomfortable to talk about in their polite society. As a result, their boy murdered twelve people. If his constant domestic violence was not enough to trigger an intervention, the voices in his head, telling him that his co-workers were beaming signals to his brain to hurt him, should have been the high sign.
Despite what Donald Trump thinks, we know mentally ill people should not be able to get their hands on guns. My sister is not only mentally and physically disabled from birth, she acquired a mental illness later in life. I have seen her yell at non-existent people and, sadly, have seen her in a straight jacket as a result of it. There was no way that I was going to then hand her a firearm.
Americans should rightly honor the dignity of people suffering from mental illness, but we should not be stupid. We need to be honest in recognizing it when we see it, get it evaluated and treated. Instead, we honor their dignity by letting them exist dishonorably and with indignity. We let them roam the streets. We suffer their bizarre behavior patiently, as an act of magnanimity. And now, we even let them buy guns.
There are many alternatives today to isolated institutionalization for the mentally ill. But we must first accept that some form of temporary institutionalization until stable is necessary to truly help people. We know that modern medications can effectively treat mental illness. What we fail to grasp is that people with mental illness actually need to take the medication to feel better. Unbelievably, there is a school of thought (if Scientology counts as thought) arguing that nobody should be forced to take such medications – that the coercive use of medications for mental illness is a violation of their rights – even if the alternative is a life of pain, suffering and indignity.
Surely the medical community could create specific criteria the general public could use to identify people with serious mental health issues and then allow a way to get them help, even if by force. For instance, there might be five criteria for parents and guardians used to discern serious mental illness that should be at minimum reported to medical professionals. I am my sister’s legal guardian and I should be accountable for her behavior as well as her welfare. If she got her hands on a gun and killed people, accountability should rest with me. We should never accept a response to tragedy from a parent or guardian such as, “But she was such a sweet person” or “He was such a nice, quiet boy.”
No solution is easy. But a difficult solution is better than the next record-setting murder by a person unnecessarily living with mental illness.
I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
Paul Mero is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.