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Tim Blagg

Important conversation

Nation must examine mental illness

As the babble of well-intentioned but largely ill-considered discussions about “doing something” about preventing future tragedies like the one down in Newtown, Conn., continues, one topic has been about mental illness.

And that’s a good thing.

I hasten to add that it’s good because it’s long been a problem in American society, NOT because the mentally ill pose any serious hazard to our safety.

The vast majority of all those who suffer from mental problems don’t threaten anyone, despite the amount of publicity they get.

Most of them are prey, not predators.

But ever since the Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. in 1999, American courts have been forced to rule that unless it can be PROVED that a person is a threat to themselves or others, nobody — not their parents, not the police, not the health community — has the right to either confine them ... or force them to take medication that can bring them closer to the light of sanity.

And that’s a continuing tragedy.

The fact is that the nature of many forms of mental illness makes it impossible for the person to judge for themselves what is the correct course to take. In too many cases, they discontinue medication and spiral down into madness, refusing to take the steps necessary to make themselves better.

I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days, when they were all locked up for life in mental institutions, but tossing them out onto the street to fend for themselves isn’t the right answer, either.

In the wake of the court decision, there were many extravagant claims made about how we would take care of these ex-confinees through community clinics and half-way houses. Some of that has come to pass, of course, but too many people fall through the cracks and wind up wandering the streets in a daze ... or becoming homeless.

And there is a tiny, tiny minority of these sad people who are, in fact, potentially dangerous.

We read about them when they push someone in front of an oncoming subway train, or suddenly attack people on the street — or, every once in awhile, get hold of a firearm and wage war on their neighbors.

It’s far from clear that the recent string of tragedies in this country are the result of mental illness ... there are other reasons for loners to plan and execute horrendous massacres, as we’ve seen through history.

Timothy McVeigh was not mentally ill when he planted the Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 ... he was an anti-government political fanatic. And the teenagers who attacked their classmates at Columbine high school in Colorado apparently fancied themselves as victims and were taking adolescent revenge.

I think we need to re-examine our laws and policies on treating seriously mentally ill Americans and try to find a balance between infringing on their civil rights and making sure they get the treatment they need to function as normally as is possible.

There are thousands of families across the country who would applaud such changes, which could give them a chance to help their sons or daughters come in off the streets and be a part of their lives again.

The devil is in the details, of course, but this recent surge of interest could possibly be a good thing, as long as such an examination does not demonize people who are simply the victims of a cruel disease that cuts them off from normal human society.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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