The Atlantic: Locking Up People for Mental Illness Won’t Stop Killers

Jeff Deeney, a Philadelphia-area social worker, wrote a piece that not only addresses the second-guessing that many people are doing regarding Elliot Rodger’s murder spree and suicide, but deals with a strategy that the NRA has been endorsing to some extent since the Sandy Hook mass shooting. Tad Cronn pointed out yesterday that the police came to Rodger’s door to investigate him. Unlike many who had written about that encounter, Cronn wisely suggests that perhaps neither the police nor the laws were at fault. I think if anyone questions Cronn’s evaluation they need to read this piece by Jeff Deeney.

In the case of Elliot Rodger, based on the description given by the Sheriff Bill Brown at Saturday night’s press conference, it’s hard to argue that they should have done anything more than they did. Trained in mental-health response calls, the officers arrived to find Rodgers not fitting the criteria they would normally use to take someone involuntarily into custody for a mental health evaluation. Officers said that they found him lucid and articulate, saying that he had no intention of hurting anyone. They said that he was shy, but shyness isn’t indicative of unstable mental health. They probed enough to find out that he was lonely and having problems in his social life. But being a loner is no more an indication of unstable mental health than shyness. And the criterion for involuntarily holding someone, while they may differ some from state-to-state, are usually very clearly defined: Does the person pose an immediate threat to themselves or the community (As in, do they actually verbalize, “I am going to kill somebody or myself and here is my plan for how to do that”?) If not, the right thing to do, which the Sheriffs in this case did, is to not detain someone.

Deeney has three basic arguments.

First, and most obviously, you shouldn’t lock people up just because they seem weird. The moment you come up with criteria for detecting when weirdness might lead to violence, you raise the possibility that clever people will evade matching those criteria. We can’t lock people up for baseless reasons so there is no way to get around it.

(Which ought to tell us, by the way, that “mental illness,” whatever role it might or might not play in homicides, cannot displace the possibility that people are mentally “healthy” and yet enraged enough to become killers.)

Second, just because you involuntarily hospitalize someone, doesn’t mean that they stay hospitalized very long. Do we really want to say that any moment of suicidal or homicidal thoughts gives the government-hospital-psych complex the power of indefinite detention without a trial? No! So every 72 hours there must be a hearing to show cause to continue incarceration. People committed to mass murder are probably not going to change their minds in three days. (Note, that even when involuntarily hospitalized, all other forms of treatment are voluntary.)

A related point here is that Deeney suggests that, when police have to involuntarily hospitalize someone, they can easily do so in a way that destroys the credibility of the hospital staff in the eyes of their involuntary “patient.” Being reminded one is a prisoner does not build trust.

Third, there simply isn’t a cure that makes a person non-violent while being involuntarily hospitalized. There’s no magic pill. So this form of intervention is pretty useless against a person who is plotting evil. He will still do it.

My basic summary barely does justice to Deeney’s piece. I highly recommend you read and share it.