THE EYES HAVE IT – Why is mental health being ignored?

Elected officials of both parties are reluctant to discuss or address a problem that is apparent almost daily in the news and during a visit to any large American city, namely wanton violence and shootings, and the plague of homelessness. They propose Band-aid solutions of banning scary-looking weapons or creating homeless camps to sweep the problem under the rug, but these so-called solutions ignore the root causes of these societal blights. 

The elephant in the room is mental health care in America, a problem that makes people uncomfortable and which they would rather not talk about. How bad is it?

A Johns Hopkins University study found, “26% of Americans age 18 and older – about 1 in 4 adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”

Is there any doubt that if 1 in 4 Americans suffered from breast cancer or AIDS, the attention currently devoted to these illnesses would increase by orders of magnitude? But with mental illness, society and elected officials yawn or awkwardly look the other way.

Some of those suffering from severe mental illness should be hospitalized or institutionalized, particularly if they pose a risk to themselves or others. But psychiatric beds are in short supply, like so much else these days. 

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, “By early 2016, the practice of closing state mental hospitals, often called ‘deinstitutionalization,’ had eliminated more than 96% of the last-resort beds that existed in the mid-1950s .”

How does this affect homelessness? According to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, “Research shows that 71 percent of people experiencing homelessness have a mental illness or post-traumatic stress.”  If quality mental health care is not available, self-care through street drugs becomes the only alternative.

What about mass shooters? As Pew reports, “Roughly one-third of acts of mass violence — defined as crimes in which four or more people were killed — since the 1990s were committed by people with a serious mental illness.” A Stanford University reviewed 35 mass shooting cases and discovered that 28 of the shooters had a mental illness diagnosis, 80 percent. 

It’s not only mass shooters but other random violent crime. As the New York Post recently reported, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who does not take his medication regularly was arrested after brutally beating a cell phone store employee in Phoenix. Decades ago, he would have been hospitalized or institutionalized if he was a danger to himself or others. Today he is free to terrorize people.

What actions are government officials taking? For the homeless, “sweeps” or “cleanups” are the solution, shuffling the homeless out of downtown into the suburbs, as Denver officials are doing, ignoring the root problems, preferring a Band-aid covering a festering sore.

Addressing shootings, Congress’s first reaction is to ban so-called “assault rifles,” shrink magazine capacity, as well as raise the age limit for the legal purchase of firearms. They miss the irony that an 18-year-old can legally use far deadlier weapons than any civilian, as long as they are wearing a U.S. military uniform, but out of uniform, they are deemed incapable of owning a basic pistol.

Until this becomes a national priority, creating a functional mental health care system that can identify, treat, and if necessary, hospitalize those who are mentally ill and dangerous or incapable of self-care, expect to see homelessness and mass shootings continue. It should not be that complicated unless these are problems elected officials prefer to use as campaign issues rather than actually solve them.