Mero Moment: Tackling mental illness in a free society

Image courtesy of prill / iStock / Getty Images Plus; St. George News

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.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews


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1 Comment

  • bikeandfish November 10, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Most municipalities and states do have policies and laws about involuntary commitment. Those require a willingness of family, friends, community or medical practitioners to use them and a court system that is able to deal with the long term implications (as most limit holds to 72 hours without a judges approval for extended stay). But that also requires funding which has been slowly and steadily cut for decades, especially by right-leaning Congresses and Presidents.

    And a refined and narrow definition of “mental illness” needs to be used in these moments. The DSM lists hundreds of disorders but the bulk of them don’t require involuntary commitment or relinquishment of fire arms. Yet society still talks broadly about mental illness as is if it is a simply, unified issue. Its not and such an indiscretionary use of the term increases stigma and makes the progress Mero rightfully proposes more difficult to achieve.

    The Texas shooter should be a wake up call that our existing infrastructure does not function to the level it should. Reporting doesn’t happen enough, ie the Air Force failure to report to the FBI database, and violent criminals are often released because of the way society still fails to account for the full weight of certain crimes, like domestic abuse or sexual assault (they often work as a pair). He exhibited enough to have been dealt with more aggressively but his actions should not reflect on all folks with mental illness.

    We must be thoughtful and vigilant about always protecting the rights of citizens. The assumption should be a person has the agency to maintain natural liberties until they have exhibited a pattern of behaviors that makes it clear the state should intervene. That is as true with crime as it is with specific types of mental illness. Mental health is a variable in our cultures gun violence problem but a rush to make it the primary part of the equation could leave those citizens who deal with such problems more vulnerable to societal whims than they already are. The current public discourse exposes a noticeable ignorance of existing laws and tools and fundamental grasp of how we created the mental health predicament in the first place. I am a proponent of addressing mental health in the US but fear we will just use it as a scapegoat to avoid the true complexity of the issue.

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