Cawley: More institutions is no solution

After a school mass shooting, the narrative usually turns in several directions, which are typically along the lines of should there be stricter gun laws, or should more authority figures be armed to protect against a potential shooting, and how to address mental health issues to prevent future tragedies.

Oftentimes, an investigation following the school mass shootings reveal that the shooter had some mental health issues. Reports have shown that Nicholas Cruz, the 19-year-old who opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was possibly suffering from depression or displaying anger and isolating himself.

An investigation following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between 6 and 7 years old and six adult staff members, showed that Lanza had previously been under psychiatric care.

But what doesn’t help find a solution is when someone uses irresponsible language, such as President Donald Trump tweeting about a “sicko shooter” for the purposes of pushing his agenda, and advocating for teachers to be armed to prevent future school shootings. What also doesn’t help is arguing that opening more mental institutions would serve the same purpose.

What the president fails to understand or refuses to acknowledge is how difficult it is for someone to be involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Anyone who has a family member with mental health issues or a full-blown mental illness can attest to how difficult and frustrating the system can be to navigate when you’re trying to get that person help.

If the president is automatically assuming that more mental institutions means that more people will be committed and subsequently potential shooters will be in psychiatric facilities instead of carrying out a school shooting, that is just not an accurate representation of how things work.

Sometimes, an involuntary commitment only happens after a person suffering from mental health issues has been charged with various crimes, and is incarcerated and navigating the court system.

A court order may be that they need to seek psychiatric treatment and sometimes it’s a long process before the person could be committed against their will when they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. But that court-ordered commitment could only be brief, rather than providing long-term treatment.

As detailed in a recent report by the New York Times, in the 1960s, states across the country began to close or shrink mental hospitals after a series of court decisions limited the powers of state and local officials to commit people. Those institutions housed people with severe psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, who were deemed unable to care for themselves.

But the report states that while spree killers may be angry and emotionally disordered, few have had the sort of illnesses that would have landed them in hospital custody. Cruz, the Florida school shooter, had no mental diagnosis and a full psychiatric evaluation may have resulted in temporary commitment, rather than long-term institutionalization.

Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University, told the New York Times the idea that more such institutions would prevent this kind of violence is “ridiculous because you can’t put half the people in the country with a mental disturbance in mental hospitals. Most of these shooters are angry, antisocial individuals you cannot spot in advance and even if you could, you don’t have the right to institutionalize them.”

Saying that more mental institutions would reduce school shootings may sound good politically, but shows a lack of knowledge or experience regarding mental illness.

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