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Who Says You're Crazy?

Locking up loonies means giving government the power to lock you up.

By Will Offensicht  |  April 16, 2013

The New York Times pointed out that the gun control debate has brought about a bipartisan moment in Washington - both Democrats and Republicans agree that we need better care for crazy people, a.k.a. "mentally ill."  It's been known for a long time that many homeless people are sufficiently mentally ill that they can't cope with the complexities of modern life.

In the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, many American cities and states set up asylums to care for crazy people.  As with most well-meaning government programs, costs got out of control and inmates suffered terrible abuse.

Beginning in the 1960s, most public mental institutions were closed.  Advocates expected that local health care centers would care for the now-released mental patients, but such centers never materialized.  Many of the people who were released from mental institutions ended up among the homeless street people, harassing taxpayers for funds directly instead of indirectly as before.

Hope for the Homeless?

Mental health advocates are hoping that the Newton massacre will bring the funding they've been demanding for many years:

While the Senate has been consumed with a divisive debate over expanded background checks for gun buyers, lawmakers have been quietly working across party lines on legislation that advocates say could help prevent killers like Adam Lanza, the gunman in the Newton, Conn., massacre, from slipping through the cracks.

... Unlike the bitter disagreements that have characterized efforts to limit access to guns, the idea of improving mental health unites Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural, blue state and red state.

Voting in favor of better mental health allows politicians who oppose gun control to avoid criticism from the families of the kids who were killed in Newton, Conn.  It's likely that Washington will "finance the construction of more community mental health centers, provide grants to train teachers to spot early signs of mental illness and make more Medicaid dollars available for mental health care."

The 400-Pound Mental-Health Gorilla

Those who want government to spend more on mental health welcome the money, but they warn that the new system won't be perfect:

Though more stringent reporting standards into the nation's background check system will undoubtedly help, he [Ronald S. Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness] added, there will always be holes.

"It's very difficult to come up with a system that's foolproof," he said. "The bigger point is if you really want to improve mental health care in this country, then let's improve mental health care."  [emphasis added]

The 400-pound gorilla of a "hole" Mr. Honberg didn't mention is what to do if a mental patient doesn't want to take the medicine doctors recommend.

This is a difficult issue.  One of my friends suffered from some sort of mental illness.  When he took his medicine, he acted more or less normal.  When he didn't take it, he lost it to the point that he'd beat up his wife and children among other anti-social acts.

The medicine had undesirable effects that gave him good reason to not want to take it: it made his head hurt very badly and made him impotent.

When in the depths of his illness, he could sometimes be persuaded to start taking the medicine.  He'd act better after a few weeks, but then the undesirable effects would kick in and he'd kick the pills again, restarting the cycle.  What should we do in such cases?  Send the cops 'round to force him to swallow medicine he hates?

Police complain that they can't do anything about homeless people who don't want shelter.  Should police have the power to force homeless street people to move to places they don't want to go?  There have been a number of notorious cases where odoriferous and ill-behaved bums basically ruined the enjoyment of public spaces for countless upstanding citizens, but who were able to win lawsuits to the effect that they had just as much right to be stinking up the library as anyone else.

In years gone by, police would execute the "bum's rush," sometimes even loading vagrants up into trucks and dumping them over the edge of the state line far out of town.  The Supreme Court has put an end to this practice, which seems like an improvement in civil rights on its face - until you have to actually go downtown and trip over filthy, threatening, bug-infested loonies.

Locking Up "Crazy" Grandpa

And that's with people that truly do have serious mental problems.  What about those whose only problem is being inconvenient to somebody powerful?

Unscrupulous heirs have always tried to get elderly relatives certified as crazy so they could take over their money; powerful men used similar methods to dispose of an inconvenient wife.  In the past, it was pretty easy to get someone committed, which is one reason why there were so many mental patients.  From the hospital's point of view, a patient was a source of money, so they were reluctant to let anyone go.  People who knew they weren't insane tended not to cooperate with the staff, which contributed to abuse in mental hospitals.

At the same time mental institutions were shut down, many state laws were changed to make it a lot harder to commit people.  Again, this seems like a victory for personal rights and individual liberty - but it's why the police can't force street people into shelters no matter how messy they make the place look.

What do we do about this?  Set up a committee?

Think about this for a moment.  We forcibly drug school kids whose behavior we don't like, ordinarily with the permission of the parents.  Should we be equally free to forcibly drug adults whose behavior we don't like - or, more precisely, which irritates those with power?

The Soviet Union was famous for its use of mental institutions to abuse political prisoners.  Communism was so obviously the only right way to run a society that anyone who disagreed with communism was by definition crazy; many dissidents were treated for that particular "mental illness" with horrendous effects.

As conservatives, we think that lots of liberals are delusional; should we be permitted to drug them, or better yet, lock them up to keep them from harming society?  But that's a dangerous road: whom in government or anywhere else would you trust to decide that you are crazy enough to lock you up and physically force you take medicine you don't want?  Eric Holder?  Your parents?  Some doctor?  Sarah Palin?

If the government can force you to take medicine you don't want, can they force you to have an abortion you don't want?  The Chinese government claims the power to do that and has used it with a vengeance for many decades.

Remember the hooraw about mammograms?  The committee wasn't saying that younger women couldn't have mammograms, they said merely that insurance shouldn't pay for them and that slow-growing cancers in the elderly shouldn't be treated because the cure was worse than the disease.  From all the yelling and screaming, you'd have thought they were saying that breast cancer shouldn't be treated at all.  The right to lock people up should bring about even more controversy once people realize how easily it can be abused.

The Obama administration has declared that it's OK for the military to kill American citizens on the President's sole say-so.  We at Scragged don't trust the government to declare someone crazy enough to be locked up, and we certainly don't think any government official should have the ability to decree death for someone without the assent of "twelve good men and true" in a court of law.

Without that kind of direct bureaucratic power over life and death, however, how do we handle crazy folks who don't want to be treated?  Maybe filthy bums on the street and the occasional mass murder is the price we pay for not worrying about being whisked off to the re-education camps.