The picture of Timothy ‘Jake’ Laird stared out at me from page one of my morning paper–so terribly young, so much like the idealistic young criminal justice students in my classes. He was gunned down before he really had a chance to live, as much the victim of failed public policies as the man who pulled the trigger.
The picture of Timothy “Jake” Laird stared out at me from page one of my morning paper—so terribly young, so much like the idealistic young criminal justice students in my classes. He was gunned down before he really had a chance to live, as much the victim of failed public policies as the man who pulled the trigger.
In the immediate aftermath of Kenneth Anderson’s rampage on Indianapolis’ south side, the Mayor vowed to change the law that had required return of lethal weapons to a man who was seriously mentally ill. Such a change is certainly necessary, but focusing on gun regulation misses the point. Over the past several years, as the economics of health care have forced cutbacks in government programs, increased the numbers of uninsured and depressed job creation, options for those who need mental health care have even more drastically diminished. Local hospitals have “downsized” or eliminated psychiatric services and clinics report waiting lists of several months. Meanwhile, health insurance—even for those fortunate enough to have it—rarely provides more than minimal mental health coverage.
The problem is that whatever money we may be saving by failing to offer adequate mental health treatment is costing us a hundredfold elsewhere. We just can’t seem to connect the dots. In problems ranging from child abuse and neglect, to domestic violence, to drunk driving, to some types of criminal behavior, to homelessness, to absenteeism and low productivity in the workplace, to tragic and unnecessary deaths, we are spending large sums and incurring heartbreaking human losses because we insist upon treating the symptoms of mental illness as though they were discrete and isolated problems.
Part of the problem is historic: once upon a time, the mentally ill were simply beyond our ability to help. Some of the most severely afflicted—the schizophrenic, the paranoid—posed a genuine danger to their communities, while the more “garden-variety” depressed or anxious or obsessive-compulsive just worried or annoyed their families, and sometimes wound up as suicide statistics. The more obviously ill were stigmatized, and those who could mask their symptoms got the message that mental illness was shameful and couldn’t be admitted to.
But today, we can help the vast majority of those suffering from mental illness, and we can do so relatively inexpensively. Greater understanding of brain chemistry and genetics has led to enormous progress. Drug therapies control depression and anxiety; recent reports suggest we are even on the brink of finding a vaccine to control schizophrenia. Today, our biggest obstacles are outdated attitudes, and our failure to match public policy to medical possibility.
Last month, an award-winning first-grade teacher in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, killed herself and her five-week-old daughter. She was suffering from post-partum depression. In June, a Morgan County man suffering with bipolar disease was shot by a sheriff’s deputy who didn’t have training to deal with the situation. And Timothy “Jake” Laird will not patrol the IPD South District again.
What a heartbreaking waste. When will we learn?