The Dangers of Good Intentions
(c) 2011 by Tom King
Well I was there when it started going bad. It happened because a lot of nice people were appalled by the conditions in American mental hospitals. Conditions up through the 70's were awful in many state-run hospitals. Many patients were serving what was, in essence, life sentences behind bars without access to due process. The activists who rose up to do something about it meant well. Unfortunately, nobody quite thought the whole thing through when they were passing the legislation to free the mentally ill.
What happened was that tens of thousands of mentally ill patients were suddenly given the option of signing themselves out of care on their own recognizance. The new laws made it more difficult to commit someone until they actually hurt themselves or others. A patient could show all the symptoms in the world that they were fixing to go on a killing rampage - as he who must not be named did. It wouldn't matter how many warning signs there were. So long as a person doesn't commit a crime or hurt themselves or someone else, they must agree to any mental health treatment they receive.
If a person with a mental disorder chooses not to receive help, there's precious little anyone can do to intervene as long as he remains relatively functional and doesn't violate the law. Even then, the violation has to be extreme and directly related to his underlying mental condition.
A very bright schizophrenic can manipulate those around him and keep himself at liberty for a long time, even though his psychosis may be escalating out of control. Until he opens fire, there may not be a thing you can do about it.
When we created these well-intentioned civil rights protections in the 80s, we rejoiced as mental patients streamed out of the grim gates of the nation's loony bins. A few years later, however, we began to notice an increase in the number of ragged human beings sleeping on steam grates, in parks or on loading docks. Our homeless shelters are overflowing all of a sudden. Then to our horror we realized that many of those new homeless were the same ones we'd set free from the mental institutions.
I can't tell you how to solve the problem. I didn't create it. I do hope someone will take the time to look at how we can create a way to intervene with folks who are obviously dangerous. The only problem is, we could wind up with draconian measures that allow government officials to send people to the gulags who aren't crazy - merely disagreeable.
I'm just sayin'