11 January 2011


The human organism is a remarkable thing, truly wondrous. But it is also flawed. For one thing, it deteriorates and ceases functioning after a time. It is prone to disease as well. Sometimes its constituent organs malfunction. Other times it just shuts down inexplicably.

One of the things that can happen to it is that electro-chemical reactions in its brain misfire. We refer to some of these misfirings as madness or insanity or craziness. Or, we get more technical and give them names like schizophrenia, bipolar disease, depression.

By all indications, Jared Loughner, the alleged Arizona mass murderer, appears to have been suffering from some form of adult-onset schizophrenia. His fetish with 'conscience [sic] dreaming', his paranoia about the government employing tyrannical mind control through grammar, his delusional belief that after an earlier encounter with Rep. Giffords she just didn't get what he was so deeply concerned about are all indications of a very disturbed mind.

This is not to say that I believe Mr. Loughner has a legitimate insanity defense plea at trial. Legal insanity and a clinical psychiatric diagnosis are by no means commensurate. As a general matter, legal insanity means not being capable of distinguishing between right and wrong at the time of the commission of the act. Many, many, many schizophrenics are entirely capable of recognizing the wrongness of their actions; they are just confused about their reasons for carrying them out.

But this is not that discussion.

Mental illness exists on a broad contiuum: everything from simple social maladjustment and harmless neurosis and mild depression to full-blown, paralyzing post-traumatic shock distress and raging schizophrenia and all-out Alzheimer's disease.

We all get a bit of the mental flu once in awhile. Anyone who's ever been moody or paranoid from smoking cheap marijuana or believed every girl in the bar was in love with him has been there.

Sometimes mental illnesses are temporary and go away after a little time. Other times they can be treated effectively with therapy, the 'talking cure'. And still other times, they require psychotropic pharmaceuticals to mitigate their effects. Not all are curable (given the current state of medical understanding); some require institutionalization.

The state of mental health care in this country is pathetic. I speak now not of the professionals who strive every day to help people suffering from the vast variety of mental illnesses, but of the lack of support from the health insurance industry for psychiatric care for the many people who desperately need it. Most health plans have better dental coverage than mental health care coverage, and not that many plans even offer dental coverage!

Meanwhile, dedicated psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists, social workers, therapists, psychiatric nurses, pastoral caregivers, etc., are researching, diagnosing, treating, listening to, and otherwise doing everything in their power to combat these illnesses given their limited resources and public support.

One problem, I fear, is that people simply don't recognize mental illness for what it is: a flaw in the human organism. There is too much of a social stigma attached to it. We are embarrassed about 'Crazy Aunt Sukie' or 'Silly Billy' and don't want to talk about them. We try to deal with them when we have to and otherwise keep them at arm's length. And the people who suffer are incapable of recognizing, much less understanding, their own condition and thus unable to reach out for help.

On the flip side, of course, there's practically every boy in practically every school who has ADD and/or ADHD and is on some form of Ritalin (i.e., speed). And every lonely woman who is on Prozac. And every quiet child who just can't seem to get along with the other kids so they are diagnosed with Aspergers. All of which, I assure you, are very real conditions; but there is a spectrum. So much mental illness is overdiagnosed, because we just don't know enough about these conditions to treat them properly.

If any good can come out of this atrocity in Tucson, I would hope there would be a greater public awareness of the problems facing the seriously mental ill and of the dangers to society from failing to diagnose and treat and, more importantly, support those who suffer from these very real organic flaws humanely.


Randal Graves said...

I'd be shocked if any good came out of this; even the most optimistic individual likely wasn't surprised that it immediately became a blame game amidst the talking hairpiece set.

Anonymous said...

Please find an essay which points out that most of what is now promoted as religion is a form of mental illness - especially in the USA.