Thursday, April 26, 2007

More Editorial Comments on Mental Illness and the Virginia Tech Massacre

Suzanne Fields starts strong and trails off. Parents are not necessarily "reluctant to commit" their children. In some cases, parents have few opportunities to get meaningful treatment for their children. Contrary to some of the comments over at Town Hall, there are people who really are dangerous to themselves and others. About a third of the "homeless" population have serious mental illnesses. We are doing no one any favor by pretending they are just a little different, or just transgressive non-conformists. Of course, there is the danger of over-treating people, or of commiting people who shouldn't be committed. But at this time in our history, the pendulum has swung so far in the direction of protecting the civil liberties of the insane, rather than protecting the sanity of the mentally ill (which can sometimes be improved with medications) and the safety of the public.
Daniel Henninger, at the Wall Street Journal, refers to the Safe Schools report and its perhaps surprising conclusion that although most of th school shooters gave indications that should have been recognized, not all of the school shooters were certifiablly insane.
One of the Safe School report's most relevant findings, for the purposes of stopping another Virginia Tech, is that the 37 school attacks weren't typically carried out by severely ill, unhinged psychotics like Cho Seung-Hui. This is not to say they were happy campers (the study interviewed 10 perpetrators in depth). Though few of them would get off by reason of insanity, they were all mentally very unhappy campers; and what is more, other people knew that. And in nearly every case, someone knew they were planning the attack: "In nearly two thirds of the incidents, more than one person had information about the attack before it occurred."

Henniger's bottom line is that people need to DO something when they notice strange behavior. Running to get medication or commitment papers is not the "something" that needs to be done in all cases. But we need to stop being so passive:
Among the reasons widely adduced for not doing something about Cho's violent proclivities are HIPAA and FERPA, the confidentiality laws for health records and college students' records. Well, there's no FERPA for high schools. There is merely the weird cultural refusal to turn in bad actors to adult authority. In one school attack, so many students knew it was coming that 24 were waiting on a mezzanine to watch, one with a camera. The enemy is us....

If there is a sliver of silver lining in the Virginia Tech aftermath, it is that there seems to be a willingness to look hard at the status quo -- no matter what assumptions pre-existed about rights, privacy, stigma, coercion, security or whether we can blame it on Karl Rove. On Tuesday, for example, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by a professor titled, "Why It's OK to Rat On Other Students." Here, as with the message screaming off the pages of the Safe School report, the exhortation is to do something, no matter what the intimidations of the law or received wisdom.

What this means is that some college presidents, and their lawyers, rather than rolling over before those confidentiality laws, should tell some aggrieved student who is refusing to take the medication prescribed for his psychosis: So sue! Let a judge decide whether 32 deaths warrant a reconsideration of these restrictions.

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