Posted by Ginny on January 9th, 2011 (All posts by Ginny)
This began as a comment and, given my extremely limited (nonexistent) expertise, it is rambling observations and questions – and if Michael & Madhu say I’ve got it wrong, well, I probably do.
Mental hospitals dotted the landscape in the 50’s and 60’s. That was another time: some of us got through college pulling night shifts at them. Psychiatric counseling was a rite of passage among the artsy. (Note Girl Interrupted and Emily Fox Gordon’s Mockingbird Years. ) Gordon treats that particular perspective with irony. But such approaches were not always helpful and certainly those public wards filled with the less affluent were sad and lifeless.
My understanding (Michael? Madhu?) was that a combination of many pressures cleared out those hospitals. The revolution in psychiatric drugs was one. Hospitals were expensive and shutting them down improved state budgets. A strong push from advocates for “patient’s rights” was one “cause” of 60’s empowerment. Making the choices voluntary meant few opted for such treatment. But those hospitals – better than they were decades before – were still awful.
Then the adults read Freud & we just acted it out. Karl Shapiro taught creative writing in the mid-sixties in Lincoln; on the first class day he held up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, telling us the book got it right – he knew about the one on the edge of Lincoln. Actually by then lobotomies were few, but we knew what they were. My own life was too much in shambles to argue – I was working nights at that hospital. And frankly I had no idea what was going on outside my pretty peculiar world at that time. But that book was a force. And as the sixties went on, the potential problems of isolated institutions where some had great power over the quite vulnerable remained. Forman ‘s interpretation is political: his vision was clearly influenced by the Soviet use of psychiatry, but that didn’t mean in the less politicized world of American hospitals excesses didn’t remain.
The tension between individual & society’s rights are one of the great dilemmas: Should a community limit some because within them percolates a higher than average (if unpredictable) chance they pose harm? In the great dramas justice enters; but justice must involve the act and not the potential. Is stunting many lives because some might damage others fair? We think not. But the dilemma is no less real. We know that in our gut – Oedipus still has power because we understand the scapegoat story, we understand the restoration of order at the conclusion of classic tragedy with the banishment or sacrificial death of a flawed hero is stark. My friend teaches Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Remarkably responsive and loving, she says, why doesn’t someone scoop up the child and take it away. But it implies the tradeoffs are simpler than they generally are. When we see the slaughter at Safeway we remember that this particular tradeoff is not simple.
In 2007 a series of posts on the Volokh Conspiracy analyzed incarceration rates, prmpted by Bernard Honcourt’s “An Institutional Effect,”. He notes rates were relatively stable if mental hospital and prison populations were factored together. Stuart Benjamin then did a series of posts. His was not (and could not rationally be) an argument of cause and effect nor that those in prison were really mentally ill. Teaching at a minimum security prison for a while, I felt thrown back on the gray misery of my work forty years earlier. The shiny buffed floors, gray & colorless, spread before quite different people. My anecdotal observation was reinforced: mental hospitals disproportionately held middle-aged white women while prisons house disproportionately ethnic young men. Perhaps it says something about the amount of unpredictability a society can contain (both add to society’s chaos). Or perhaps it says nothing.
While some paranoids I know seem a bit edgier, they are also married & productive. Few are suicidal or homicidal. Deinstitutionalization may well be worth its costs. Or, perhaps, we could now diagnose more precisely. Or allow assessments prompted more often by others. If many are happier, others lead lives dramatically worse and more abused (as well as more abusive) than they would have in such facilities. And we don’t (can’t) isolate those who are truly (and obviously) homicidal.
Charging such acts to political discourse distracts from the consequences of policy. I’m not sure failed policy, but if we protected the individual liberty of the deranged less, some would be alive in West Virginia, in Huntsville, Alabama, and in Tucson. But many might be much worse off. It would not be an easy task to total the pluses and minuses, but it might be an honest one.
Political rhetoric? Well, this particular shooter appears as much loony left as loony right. If the left seems hypocritical in trying to make political gain, that is just what they do. But the truth is such a loon today when political discourse is important to us uses that vocabulary. Rants were often drawn from the Bible. Some use environmental terms & tropes. Loons become obsessed while others merely become interested. Among the Puritans such people killed others or committed suicide, quoting the Bible. But the Bible also pointed a way for many others to love one another. The Columbine massacre appeared to be acted out by teenagers using the rites and costumes of pop culture. It wasn’t that a Puritan ax-murderer like Jonathan Edwards’ uncle nor his other uncle who slit his own throat did so because they were Puritans. Because they were Puritans their fantasies were woven from Puritan tropes and vocabulary.
While I was writing this, an e-mail discussion built among my friends. This isn’t surprising. We have been told that several people with significant problems are likely to appear in our classes. (A friend’s husband was getting quite violent threatening notes, but after he flunked the student at the big school he came over to our community college. There the student began to send threatening e-mails to one of my colleagues. The student’s sister is one of my daughter’s friends. They know their son has problems – but, they are also in a foreign country and don’t understand the system. Not that the rest of us do.) Not surprisingly, this is a problem we return to repeatedly at our division meetings and having guest speakers from counseling does little to reassure us. I suspect it is good we can’t arbitrarily throw such a student out, but some are (which one? we ask) ticking bombs. Here are the links my friends have been circulating: New York Times , Washington Post. I have my doubts that the mentally ill are a larger percentage of the student population than in our youth; we did, however, have a good deal fewer rights and a good deal less privacy.