Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

Columns

January 19, 2011

Mental illness demands health care reform

— Can the shooting tragedy in Arizona be used to create real progress in American society?

And at the same time, can it give Democrats and Republicans something to agree on in terms of health care reform?

In this day and age, when knee-jerk ideologues on the left and right seem to hold so much sway, it’s hard to imagine such possibilities.

But an avenue is open that could allow both parties in Congress and President Obama to declare political victory.

And it would help America at the same time.

I refer to the idea that more needs to be done to identify and treat individuals in this country who have serious mental illness. The Arizona shooting has prompted considerable debate, but there is ample evidence that the young man implicated in the shootings suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia.

This is a mental illness that’s well known to experts, but little understood by the general public. Those afflicted frequently hear voices in their heads. You may sometimes see them carrying on conversations with themselves. They can display a variety of symptoms, but their behavior tends to make them social outcasts.

Most schizophrenics pose no threat to others and don’t act violently. But there are those — particularly if they develop paranoia or somehow feel threatened — who have the potential to become violent.

The suspect in the Arizona shootings apparently was one such individual. It seems there were obvious warning signs in his words and behavior that showed he suffered from a serious mental illness. But he never received treatment.

In our society, mentally ill people cannot be compelled to receive treatment until they pose a demonstrable threat to themselves or others.

That sounds strange, but it’s based on the fundamental concept of civil liberties. Totalitarian states have a habit of declaring nonconformists insane, then locking them up and drugging them. In some ways, America goes to the opposite extreme.

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