After the Virginia Tech killings, I served on a task force that helped loosen the state’s criteria for “imminent danger.” Opponents predicted a flood of unwarranted forced commitments. In fact, the number of forced commitments in Virginia has not jumped or dropped.
Paul Appelbaum, director of psychiatry at Columbia University, has suggested that reductions in community services and capacity have played a much greater role than legal criteria in reducing the number of voluntary and involuntary treatment admissions in recent years.
In Fairfax County, Va., someone seeking help at a community treatment center faces a five- to seven-day wait for an appointment. Someone forced into a Virginia hospital stays, on average, six to seven days — if a treatment bed can be found. Virginia cut its budget for mental health programs 9 percent from 2009 to 2011; Fairfax alone has lost $16 million in the past five years.
Millions of Americans have diagnosable mental disorders. But most of them are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. They are unfairly stigmatized after mass shootings.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a psychologist turned politician, noted on the House floor this month that 2 million of the 11 million American adults with a serious mental illness are not receiving treatment. Approximately 1,000 homicides a year are perpetrated by the seriously mentally ill, he said.
So how do we protect the civil rights of mentally ill people while stopping the violent minority?
Adopting a “need for treatment” standard would enable relatives, police and mental health professionals to intervene earlier. But until our nation builds and funds a community-based mental-health system that provides user-friendly treatment oriented toward recovery, the threat of mass shootings will not be reduced.
Pete Earley is the author of “Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.”