The mentally ill as scapegoats

I followed the saga of Schaeffer Cox and Lonnie and Karen Vernon as it played out from pleadings to trials to sentencing.  It was a story that had something for everyone, from the Joe Miller/DropZone/undercover informant angle to the rather bizarre 2-4-1 formula of vengeance.

Their story is a depressingly familiar one. Slightly paranoid personality with good sales pitch pulls in slightly dim followers on a path that only they could not see was going to lead to total destruction – except they were the ones destroyed, not the government.

What was sad was that this case once again brought mental illness into the forefront of the news for all the wrong reasons. Mental illness seems to be the last resort of people who find themselves caught on the distaff side of things. Cheat on your wife – it was depression that did it, not you. Just blew your month’s grocery money on Bingo – darn that bipolar disorder. Took a loaded gun into a crowded room and let loose with the bullets – news to shortly follow with a picture of someone who certainly fits every preconceived notion of mental illness – think Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

Mental illness seems to be the go-to excuse for anything anyone does wrong nowadays. Sometimes the perpetrator truly has a mental illness. But far too often it’s just the easiest thing to point to when assigning blame for someone’s incomprehensibly evil, senseless actions.

Big Brother seems to be winning here in that if you do anything slightly to the left of center in American today, it becomes suspect as a mental illness and, almost inevitably, gets some spiffy label slapped on it. After all, we say to ourselves, they are mentally ill or else they wouldn’t have done that… whatever that might have been. By labeling them as different, we comfort ourselves because they are not us.

Mental illness is a convenient label to hang on people who are sometimes, quite frankly, horrible people. The reality is that most people with mental illnesses are not apt to foment the overthrow of the government or wreak death in a school. They struggle to make a life for themselves despite the daily difficulties life throws in their path, while our health care system offers them little help.

Years ago we closed the big facilities into which we used to place the mentally ill to separate them from us. Then we decided that a truly compassionate society would not throw people away like that without giving them at least a chance to make it in our world. We closed the institutions with the understanding that we’d create a series of neighborhood mental health clinics that would assist this population in their daily struggles.

To no one’s real surprise, those clinics never became a reality and instead, our mentally ill brethren went from institutions to the streets where they all too often became part of the already crowded homeless population in most urban areas.

Now, as we face another debate on gun control, the mentally ill have become the latest scapegoats with gun advocates. The NRA is calling for a national database of the mentally ill as though mental illness was a prerequisite to horrible behavior. The same people who squeal like stuck pigs if you even whisper the possibility of a rational discussion of gun control see no problem in smearing an entire population rather than have that discussion. The same people who are highly suspicious of government and its intrusion into their lives see no problem in having that government keep a list of the mentally ill, whether or not they’ve ever done anything wrong, so we can find them quickly when the next tragedy occurs.

Yes, some of those who have committed horrible acts have been truly mentally ill. But some conveniently “discovered” their mental illness during trial and sentencing. Political dissidents have been labeled mentally ill for centuries and forced into separate enclaves – think gulags – so that they didn’t contaminate the rest of society with their thoughts. When that was done in Russia, we were horrified. Now, in America, it’s the defense du jour.

The mentally ill have enough problems without becoming our scapegoats for all the bad things that happen in our society. Sometimes bad things are simply caused by bad people.