I was standing on a street corner, waiting to cross on my way to a meeting at a large public hospital. A man in his 40s walked down the sidewalk behind me, staring straight ahead. He was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about the government’s failings.
The lights changed and I started to walk across the street. In the crosswalk coming toward me was a woman in her 30s, also staring into the middle distance and taking no notice of me. She was alone, but was carrying on an animated conversation about how the big banks are ruining the country.
As I said, neither took any notice of me, but I knew them both. One works as a cashier at the pharmacy I use and the other is a long-term psychiatric patient with schizophrenia. One had on a barely visible Bluetooth, the other has been engaged in discussions with imagined others long before the technology was invented.
But without my prior contacts with these two people, I would never have known that one of them had a serious mental illness. These fortuitous encounters make me wonder if these new technologies have an unintended but welcome destigmatizing function. Where before people might have shunned a mentally ill person who seemed to be talking to himself, today they usually assume that he’s just chatting on a BlueTooth or similar device.
We can’t specifically predict atrocities such as occurred in Sandy Hook. Yet the Medicaid expansion in health reform is an important step in addressing violence by mentally-ill offenders.
Me with a long piece in the Washington Monthly:
Itâ€™s a strange thing. Newtown was an atypical crime, committed by an atypical offender, using a murder weapon that I hope will be outlawed but that remains pretty atypical for gun homicides. Even though we may not be able to stop an event like Newtown from happening again, it seems to be moving public policy more than the routine smaller scale tragedies that we could more easily prevent. Newtown has provided a genuine occasion for Americans to think seriously about gun policy, and to consider the very real challenges to our mental health system. We should make the most of this moment.
Itâ€™s naive to believe that we could specifically identify someone such as Adam Lanza before he goes on a rampage, but improved policies could still prevent an unknown, maybe unknowable number of violent deaths. No one policy will dramatically reduce homicides, and the politics and administration of effective mental health policy are both daunting. But making these policies work would provide a fitting memorial to the victims of needless violence across America. While we may not be able to entirely solve the tragedies that occur at the intersection of mental illness and gun violence, surely we can do better than weâ€™re doing now.