We Need to Talk About Mental Health

It happens every time there is a mass murder. The photo of the guilty party is blown up on media sites and television screens. The subject is wild-haired, bug-eyed, firm-lipped. The subject is male. In the Daily Beast's article, "Mass Murderers, Unlike Serial Killers, Are Hard to Profile," Dr. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University's medical school, shares that 96.5 percent of mass murderers are male, a truth not yet explained by science. The portrait of the killer is made to seem obvious. Of course that guy is a murderer! Look at him! How could he not be?! And, yet, the truth is, mass murderers are not that easy to identify. In this country, they are also not easy to treat. They could be your neighbor, your teacher, your local grocer's cashier, even your dad. I am not encouraging paranoia; I am merely emphasizing that we do not know enough about psychologically unstable individuals. By the time we know some things, it is too late.

Starting Early

The saying "nip it in the bud" is exceedingly relevant in this case. When children go to their pediatrician for their annual check-up, they are poked and prodded. Their blood is drawn. They are vaccinated. They are thrown some casual questions. The parents are lectured about healthy living. All is well. However, these visits are primarily concerned with physical well-being. If an eye exam is a standard component of a check-up, why can't a psychological exam be as well? Why should we wait, at our peril, to send a child to a mental health professional? Pediatricians should make it a point to educate parents on psychological defects. If parents aren't aware of symptoms, how can they readily detect them and prevent their consequences? Let us briefly examine, for instance, the case of psychopathy, a condition that is widely misconstrued and overlooked. A psychopath, sometimes also referred to as a sociopath, is characterized by superficial charm, dishonesty, lack of empathy, and arrogance, among other things. Many people equate psychopathy with schizophrenia, an erroneous view considering the latter encompasses a more hazy perception of reality. Psychopaths are very much aware of what they're doing; many of them are brilliant. In the Daily Beast's aforementioned article, Dr. Stone confirms that most mass murderers have psychopathic, and not psychotic, inclinations. It can be speculated that, if detected at an early age and if treated accordingly, the condition's negative effects can be somewhat stifled. In a piece in the New York Times, "Can You Call a 9-year-old a Psychopath?", Dr. Paul Frick, a psychologist at the University of New Orleans, is credited with saying the following: "If treatment is begun early enough...[psychopathic] children might develop greater empathy..." In the right environment, psychopaths prove productive members of society because of, and not in spite of, their condition. This is particularly true in professions such as entertainment, politics and business. In his book, "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," British journalist Jon Ronson states four percent of the CEO pool is psychopathic (in comparison to just one percent of the general population). If his parents had been informed of psychopathy on those annual check-ups, perhaps Eric Harris might have grown up to be a successful businessman. Instead, he is dead; one of history's teen shooters.

A Skewed System

Mass murders are used to condemn the most irrelevant affairs, of which video games and hard-core metal are inclusive. With the recent Newtown shooting, debates about lax gun control have flared up. It isn't necessarily about the guns. According to FactCheck.org, the number of gun murders is actually going down. It cites FBI crime reports that, despite the augmented population, show a 16 percent decrease in such murders from 2006 to 2011. While I agree that gun control laws need strengthening, the key to avoiding such situations lies in mental health services. A person that intends mass murder will commit it, be it with a gun or a can of gasoline.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from some sort of mental disorder. Yet, as announced by the National Survey on Drug Use and Mental Health, only 7.1 percent of American adults receive mental health services. Why the discrepancy? You could chalk it up to insurance, underfunding and ineffective solutions.

Those covered by health insurance may have plans that limit the number of in-patient days and out-patient visits. And, to those not covered by health insurance, the cost is flabbergasting. For example, one in 10 adults receiving in-patient mental services had to pay out-of-pocket costs consisting of more than $10,000. Obamacare will require insurance to cover mental health services; however, states have the power to define the meaning of mental health services and regulate the amount of funding they receive. In reference to the latter, underfunding is a typical problem. Just recently, Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) proposed a budget plan that would cut $1.5 million from Virginia's mental health facilities. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Connecticut, home of the Newtown shooting, spent just 59 percent of its mental health agency funds on community mental health services. How appropriate. Nationally, the average is 70 percent.

In the riveting account "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," originally published on The Blue Review, Liza Long vents her frustration over a disheveled mental health system, one "using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people." To substantiate her point, she includes data from Human Rights Watch, which states that the number of mental illness cases among American prisons have quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and continue to increase.

Needed Change

We are in quite the conundrum. I can only conclude that Americans needs to become more educated on the subject of mental disorders, that the American system of mental health needs to be cleaned up, that we need to curb the violence.