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December 24, 2012

Act on mental illness

(Continued)

Yes, this is 21st-century America. Where we have better means to treat mental illness than ever before, but choose to let the insane people decide to get it or not. Where we supposedly de-institutionalized the mentally ill by closing down psychiatric hospitals, and then reinstitutionalized them behind bars. The number of psychiatric beds on a per capita basis is back at 1850 levels, and there are three times as many seriously mentally ill people in jail or prison than in hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Where we let sick people sleep on the streets. About a third of homeless men and two-thirds of homeless women are seriously mentally ill. Imagine the national outrage if people with Alzheimer's were permitted to wander around the streets uncared for. But, by some perverse logic, it's considered OK for schizophrenics.

The federal government can act on this travesty only at the margins. It is largely up to the states. They can make a real difference by stopping the further closure of public hospital psychiatric beds and making it easier to compel treatment. Civil-commitment laws that require imminent danger to self or others are too strict. As DJ Jaffe of Mental Illness Policy Org puts it, that standard doesn't prevent violence, it "requires" violence in order to get care to someone too irrational to realize that he needs it.

When they are treated, the seriously mentally ill aren't more violent than the general population. If untreated, though, they are. The evidence is in our ongoing roll call of horrors perpetrated by the deranged. We don't know yet if Adam Lanza was mentally ill, or if a better system would have helped him. We do know that somewhere out there a young man is about to get very sick. He could become the next Jared Loughner or James Holmes - unless someone gets him treatment.

(c) 2012 by King Features Syndicate

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