Monday, June 2, 2014

Santa Barbara Shooting: How Current Mental Health Laws Make Treatment Difficult To Obtain

The shooting and stabbing spree in Isla Vista, California on Friday, May 23, which left seven people dead including the shooter, is the latest in an ever increasing number of public mass murders in the United States.

With each tragedy, it is normal to look for an explanation—a reason why it happened. There has been no shortage of mental health experts on local and national television speculating as to why the killer went on his rampage. This particular case is fueled by YouTube videos and hundred-page manifestos from the murderer himself.

Up to this point, almost everything that psychologists and psychiatrists have been saying about the shooter has been speculation.

What little we know at this point can be boiled down to a few main points:

1. The shooter was very angry.
2. He was at an age where mental illness typically emerges and can be dangerous because people do not fully understand the impact of their symptoms yet.
3. He was already in mental health treatment and his parents were worried about him.

Regardless of the causes of the tragedy, it is important to recognize the killer’s mental health providers may have been doing everything they could for him. In many states, Colorado included, people cannot be committed to a psychiatric institution against their will unless they are an imminent threat to themselves or others.

In hindsight, it is obvious the killer was imminently dangerous. But, if he told his therapists he felt fine and that he didn’t have a plan to harm anyone, there was nothing more they could have done. They might have worried he was dangerous, but as far as they knew, he was not imminently dangerous and he could not be hospitalized against his will.

Colorado is now grappling with the problem of how to deal with potentially dangerous individuals in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. Some legislators are pushing to change civil commitment laws in the state to remove the requirement of an “imminent” threat in order to get people the help they need and avoid further tragedies. Others in the state have argued this would give therapists and doctors too much power and would infringe on an individual’s civil liberties.

Making the issue even more complicated is that many people who desperately need treatment are not yet connected to a mental health provider. In cases such as these, it is often difficult for someone to know where to turn for help. Even people who want mental health treatment get turned away due to lack of care. In an environment such as this, people who are refusing treatment tend to get overlooked.

Until states grapple with these tough issues, we as Americans run the risk of continuing to allow individuals who could become mentally unstable to go untreated (keep in mind, most individuals with mental illness are no more dangerous than those without mental illness—but untreated mental illness is one cause--of many--of the recent rash of public mass murders). The unfortunate reality is that more preventable suicides and homicides are likely if we do not deal with the crisis of mental health treatment and mental health laws in our country.

(by Max Wachtel)


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