Mental Illness and Mass Murder

For the last three years, I’ve been trying to find a publisher for a book about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and the destructive effects on our society that it has caused. I keep getting told that no one is interested in the topic.  The tragedy in Tucson on Saturday — like dozens of other such incidents over the last three decades involving mentally ill persons who made headlines — is the reason that people should be interested. Watching the YouTube videos the shooter made and reading news accounts of his odd behavior leaves no doubt in my mind that the final diagnosis will be paranoid schizophrenia. (I have an older brother who suffered a schizophrenic breakdown in the 1970s.  He has never recovered.)

When I was young, random acts of mass murder were shocking.  In 1966, Charles Whitman went to the top of a building at the University of Texas and methodically murdered 13 people with a rifle. Such crimes were largely unthinkable until 1984, when James Huberty went into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California, and murdered 19 people with a shotgun and an Uzi. 

We are not shocked anymore. We are saddened — but the days when gun control advocates could dance in the blood of victims to get another useless gun control law passed are over. Americans are now used to this — and that is the biggest tragedy of all. We just accept this, and don’t ask, “What’s causing this?  Can we fix it?” 

It is not just Americans who are sitting on the sidelines wondering what happened.  In spite of much more restrictive gun control laws in Europe, they have a lot of these mass murders over there also. In Finland. In Germany. In Britain. Of course, since these countries have somewhat restrictive to very restrictive gun control laws, the correct response to laws that did not work is … more of the same.

What changed? Our mental health system is what changed — a movement towards emptying out mental hospitals and making it difficult to commit someone against his will. This is called deinstitutionalization. This is an idea so theoretically elegant that it has been taking place everywhere. In America. In Canada. In Britain. In Finland (which has experienced one of the most rapid movements towards deinstitutionalization in the Western world). And probably in those other European countries as well.