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.

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.

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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.

  • Right on. Thank you. Jails/prisons should NOT be mental institutions. WAY to often, they are.

    • My son was born with Brain wave spikes and other birth defects …the day he came home from the hospital he was already entered into C.D.C. and first 10 years of his life we found the right meds and my first born son died when he was 6 months old we moved here and they took him off his meds and we had to put him in Victory House….5 years…they had him sign papers and because he could not complete the disability papers the state we moved in kept 5 years of his monthly SSi check….the papers were emancipation papers neither one of us knew this so his money went to the State due to VH funds they released him early against his best interest….he will not take meds and even though he was born with several birth defects …he is now 28 homeless and drinks….he went from sweet and loving to now he can not come near me..I feel as if I lost 2 sons…one to death and now one I can not see….they say I can do nothing because of the Laws here….PLEASE HELP my Son Phone Number [323-331-4719 ] Char..mourning all the time

  • Jen Sel

    After reading so many people’s reactions…….this is a scary world we live in :(

  • Jen Sel

    After reading most of these, we’re screwed unless someone steps in. There are far to many mental people out there to not deal with this problem. It’s NOT guns!!!!!!!!! It’s the people that get them & use them!!!

  • My son was born with Brain wave spikes and other birth defects …the day he came home from the hospital he was already entered into C.D.C. and first 10 years of his life we found the right meds and my first born son died when he was 6 months old we moved here and they took him off his meds and we had to put him in Victory House….5 years…they had him sign papers and because he could not complete the disability papers the state we moved in kept 5 years of his monthly SSi check….the papers were emancipation papers neither one of us knew this so his money went to the State due to VH funds they released him early against his best interest….he will not take meds and even though he was born with several birth defects …he is now 28 homeless and drinks….he went from sweet and loving to now he can not come near me..I feel as if I lost 2 sons…one to death and now one I can not see….they say I can do nothing because of the Laws here….PLEASE HELP my Son Phone Number [323-331-4719 ] Char

  • The real problem is that mental illnesses are never cured in this country. Instead, psychiatrists are taught to intentionally “manage” them for the entire life of the patient. Mental illnesses have been curable for over half a century, just not with man-made drugs or talk therapy.

    Talk therapy is palliative care. So are man-made drugs. Why would our country treat mentally ill people with such ridiculously ineffective care? It’s obviously due to the profit motive. There are BILLIONS of dollars to be made from mental illnesses, but no one makes a dime when someone is cured. So, “bipolar disorder” is managed for life. Schizophrenia is managed for life. ADHD: managed for life. Psychosis: managed for life. The list goes on and on.

    When MY loved one became “incurably” mentally ill, I learned just how bad conventional mental health care really is so I (finally) dumped the idiotic drugs + talk therapy approach and found REAL mental health care through my family doc and naturopath. All Americans deserve to know about the wonderful approach I found. It is effective, proven, safe, inexpensive and has been around for more than 75 years. For over 8 years, MY loved one has been 100% free of psychiatrists and their miserable liver-destroying drugs.

    The leaders of the American Psychiatric Association are not in business to get rid of their “customers” by curing them. They are in business with Big Pharma to make the most profits possible. That’s just basic capitalism.

    Whenever there is a problem that seems unsolvable, one should always look at the money trail: someone is making a financial killing and doesn’t want the system to change.

    Until the U.S. changes to mental health care that actually cures most patients we are, very sadly, going to experience more mass shootings.

  • Greg Hampikian

    A great piece that deserves a wider audience. Thank you.