Liza Long’s essay, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” put mental health front and center in the school violence debate. But the man who runs Idaho’s largest mental health facility, a jailer, not a doctor, says locking the problem away does not really help.
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Unfathomable. That’s the closest I can come to articulating the horror in Connecticut last Friday. There is no explanation, no rationalization that could make these acts comprehensible to those of us blessed with stable mental health and able to view the world around us as it truly is, rather than through the distorted lens of psychosis. Mental illness is not someone else’s issue or another family’s problem. Mental illness affects each and every one of us, yet it goes largely ignored until times of crisis.
It seems obvious that Adam Lanza was mentally ill. How else would he have been able to carry out these heinous acts? His crime is sensational and unthinkable, but there are countless other stories of mental illness and victimization that never make the news. These stories—like the poignant one shared by Liza Long—remind us of the true problem we must work together to solve. And we must do it now. If we can come together as a community and begin to coordinate resources for the mentally ill and their families, we can avoid some of the crises that—left unchecked—can lead to the unthinkable.
When I was a young jail deputy with no real insight into the problem, it was easy to chuckle at the homeless man brought in wearing a foil hat to shield himself from the threatening beams he believed were penetrating his brain with voices and extreme ideas. Nearly 30 years later, I realize that man probably didn’t need jail. He needed help.
In the criminal justice system, in most cases our process of incarceration makes sense. It is straight-forward and fair—“do the crime, do the time.” But life is not that simple. That black-and-white approach to controlling behavior cannot be most effective because people are many shades of gray. A portion of Ada County’s inmate population, often estimated to be 10- to 20-percent, suffers from severe mental illness. These inmates have almost always gone without adequate care prior to their arrest. By providing access to community-based resources, we could likely keep many of these men and women from going to jail in the first place. More importantly, we could prevent the victimization of others that put them behind bars.
Jails are not hospitals. Jails are not designed to provide mental health services. Very few facilities have any professionally trained mental health specialists on staff. Even if they do, that treatment is impeded by the inherent stress of being incarcerated and ends the day the inmate is released from custody. This less-than-ideal care also comes at an extreme cost to taxpayers. The average daily cost of incarceration for someone with mental illness often exceeds $200 per day.
Why should you care about mental health services in our community? Because we can prevent future heinous acts if we change our approach to mental illness. Psychosis doesn’t usually happen overnight. In most cases, friends and family members see the warning signs—many of them—but have limited options for effective, affordable care. Without places in the community to turn for much-needed help, they exhaust emotion, time and finances trying to protect and care for a mentally-ill loved one themselves. Even the best of intentions and noblest of efforts cannot replace the need for specialized mental health treatment. A lack of proper care and adequate supervision for the mentally ill can lead to tragic endings.
More reliable information is available about mental illness now than ever before, yet it is a problem that continues to be largely ignored within the community. Idaho just recently reestablished a suicide hotline. We rank fourth in the nation for number of suicides per capita, yet we were the only state in the nation without a help line.
I have had a long career in law enforcement and have seen many terrible things, yet I will never comprehend how a young man could walk into a first-grade classroom and callously end so many lives. Law enforcement officers were the first responders to the school, but by then it was too late. The opportunity to prevent that atrocity came months or years earlier when Adam Lanza likely displayed the first warning signs of mental illness. The criminal justice system was never intended to serve as a mental health care provider. It has been thrust into that role by a lack of other services within our community. Jails should be the last resort. Let’s not wait and find ourselves later saying, “I never thought it could happen here.” It can.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.