With cliffs, abysses and deadlines on every front, the New Year’s shaping up to be a dangerous place for justice. Consider the pressure to do “something” on gun violence. Spurred by the horrific slaughter in Newtown, President Barack Obama has tasked his administration to get serious about legislation before the end of next month. “This time, the words need to lead to action,” he said.
But what action? On gun control, a battle royal is shaping up. On mental illness, action may come more easily, but it may be just the wrong sort.
We still don’t know if the gunman in Connecticut suffered from mental illness but the killer of four firefighters in Webster, New York, was clearly disturbed. (In the note he left, he pledged to burn down the neighborhood and “do what I like doing best, killing people.”) The moment invites politicians and pundits who are jockeying for limelight (and scared of the NRA) to call for increased mental health screening and treatment, even of the mandatory sort.
PBS broadcast a piece this week about California’s “Laura’s Law” which provides court-ordered outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill. It was passed in 2002 but generally shunned since for civil liberties reasons. Nationwide, forty-three other states have laws permitting some form of involuntary outpatient commitment, and as PBS reported, the recent killings “have raised once again the issue of forcing the mentally ill into treatment.”
Author activist Dean Spade, a professor of law at the University of Seattle, says that incidents like the Virginia Tech and Newtown shootings are often followed by calls for increased surveillance and involuntary treatment of people with mental illness.
“This is not surprising—for decades we have been told that locking more people up and building more walls and metal detectors and installing more cops and cameras will make us safer, so we are used to that response,” said Spade this week.
The problem is, it does not work, and instead the people who are targeted are not those who are actually most dangerous, but those who are already considered “suspicious” in culture that’s racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant.
“We have a long history in the US of giving people involuntary medical treatment and using mental institutions to lock up people who are “different” or threatening to social norms,” says Spade. What will actually make us all safer is more accessible, voluntary mental health care. About one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, but millions of those who report needing mental health services don’t receive care because of its cost or its negative stigma.