Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Hindsight, Foresight & A Troubled Mind at Virginia Tech
I’ll leave the blaming to others, but the details now coming out about the shooter at Virginia Tech are indeed troubling and open the doors to much conversation about how society and our institutions should handle troubled individuals.
I don’t think anyone wants to go back to the days when we would lock a person suspected of having a mental problem away in a “Snake Pit” mental hospital never to be free again (The Snake Pit was a 1948 movie where Olivia de Havilland wakes up in a state insane asylum with no clue as to why she’s there). Yes, there are people who must be locked away to protect society and themselves, but today we are more apt to turn to pills and the family doctor to handle some rather serious mental health problems. And that’s if the problem is going to be addressed at all.
Pretty much the mantra has become, “if he’s no threat to himself or others.” Well, perhaps, it’s time to reevaluate this idea. Yes, I believe in a free society and an open society, and this is part of the troubling part. How do we get the help to people who don’t want it? At what point should we intervene? Must there first be a crisis? Most health insurance coverage limits mental health benefits. I think this is dangerous.
Right here in Alabama we had a federal court case, Wyatt v. Stickney, that largely influenced how states care for those with mental health problems. U. S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., for many years guided and watched over that case which set what’s been called the Wyatt Standards regarding the right to treatment: humane psychological and physical environments; qualified staff in numbers sufficient to administer adequate treatment; individualized treatment plans; and services in the least restrictive environment.
Court monitors, special masters and 33 years later, a predecessor of Judge Johnson’s finally felt that Alabama had done what the law and justice required. How ironic it is to me that Judge Johnson, the judge who took Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and applied its principles to civil rights case after case involving the Montgomery Bus Boycott, voting rights, the Ku Klux Klan, the Selma to Montgomery March, Freedom Riders and so on, lost his own 28-year-old son to suicide, coming after years of harassment over his father’s high profile decisions.
I don’t have the answer. But we need to be thinking about this.