Thursday, July 16, 2015

We're terrible at treating mental illness in this country. We ignore it, we discourage people from talking about it, we don't pay for treating it. People bemoan the lack of mental health treatment in this country, the fact that our standard way of dealing with mental health issues is to imprison folks. In the abstract, when talking about the big picture, a lot of people seem to get it. They get that we don't treat mental illness, we criminalize it, and that this is tragic.

This is a common refrain I hear from people in all walks of life. But most of you who say this, who bemoan the lack of mental health care in this country, are full of crap. Because when push comes to shove, most people faced with a particular individual refuse to accept mental illness as an "excuse." Which is how we get to James Homes, the Aurora theater shooter, being convicted of murder instead of properly being found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.

The guy is nuts. He dyed his hair orange. He booby-trapped his apartment. His parents tried and tried to get him help. People at his school were alarmed by his increasingly erratic behavior. The guy's brain just isn't right. Don't tell me he premeditated, he planned, so that proves he wasn't mentally ill. You're just proving you don't understand mental illness at all if you think planning and total psychosis are mutually exclusive. They most definitely are not.

In Colorado, once a defendant meets the threshold for a defense on the basis of insanity (or mental disease or defect), the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is not suffering from mental illness. In theory, that's quite a burden. From everything I have anecdotally seen about James Holmes, it's almost impossible to think the state could do this. Knowing what I know about death-qualified juries (they're predisposed to convict) and the way Americans refuse to accept mental illness as an "excuse" for behavior (even though that's exactly what it is), I don't trust this jury's verdict. Not for one second.

Instead, I think this verdict is proof that the reason mental illness doesn't get the treatment it deserves in this country is because deep down, most Americans don't really believe mental illness is a real thing. Most Americans think James Holmes, Andrea Yates, John Hinckley, Jr., or other psychotic people knew exactly what they were doing, knew it was wrong, and could have stopped themselves if they'd wanted to. Never mind that the illness is in the brain itself, so expecting ordered thought to overcome the disorder is kinda like expecting a color-blind person to know the thing she's seeing is red even though her brain sees it as green.

I'm losing hope that we as a nation will ever take mental illness seriously.


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