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After Thousand Oaks, It's Time to Dethrone the Mental-Health 'Experts'

There we were finally thinking we could spend a few days coming down from the draining drama of the midterm election campaign and, the day after the election, a man walked into a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and killed twelve people, plus himself. Coming eleven days after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the Thousand Oaks atrocity forced us yet again to confront what, whether we like it or not, is hard not to see as the particularly (if not exclusively) American phenomenon of apparently meaningless mass shootings. By “meaningless,” I mean mass murders that aren't acts of planned and coordinated terrorism carried out against carefully selected strategic targets by people who consider themselves soldiers in a noble or sacred cause. I mean lone nuts killing for no other reason that they feel compelled to kill.

When I saw that the massacre had taken place in a bar in Thousand Oaks, I wondered whether it was the same establishment I remember dropping into one night in the mid 1980s, a period when I spent a lot of time visiting my mother in her Northridge apartment. Thousand Oaks is nice. Very nice. It's supposed to be one of the safest places in the country. Anyway, a quick online search confirmed that it wasn't the place I remembered visiting. Not that it mattered one way other, of course. When things like this happen, I guess it's human nature to react by wondering whether one has some connection to the crime scene or has crossed paths with a victim or perpetrator.

Looking at a couple of newspaper reports, I discovered that the killer was a former member of the U.S. Marines who had served in Afghanistan and who had apparently come back home with PTSD. His mother, with whom he lived, had been “terrified” he might hurt himself or others, and his conduct was so disturbing that neighbors called the cops. The cops, in turn, had him looked at by mental health “experts,” but they determined that he was of no danger to himself or others.

Those last few words, “of no danger to himself or others,” have played a key role in my own life more than once. First in New York and later in Norway, I have had close relationships with two people who, I realized, were suffering from serious psychiatric disorders and needed care. For months before I came to this determination about the person in New York, he had been regularly seeing a psychologist and a fancy Central Park West psychiatrist, neither of whom recognized that he required hospitalization and medication. Instead, they professed that he was, yes, “of no danger to himself or others.” They were busy giving him talk therapy – an activity that, as I could see (but they couldn't), was only making him sicker. While these doctors were insisting he was basically OK, he was, unbeknownst to them, frequenting some of the seediest bars in Manhattan, where, he told a mutual friend, his goal was to get infected with HIV so he could then pass it on to others.