By CHRIS POWELL MANCHESTER, Conn.
Catastrophes of mental illness are everywhere these days, likely increased by the economy's collapse and social disintegration. While the federal government is too paralyzed by partisanship to do anything, Connecticut state government has decided to study mental illness in children, as required by a state law passed last year in response to the school massacre in Newtown.
The study, to be supervised by the state Department of Children and Families, is to develop a plan for improving children's access to treatment. But while it may be better than nothing, the DCF study is a dodge for delay.
For what is lacking in the treatment of the mentally ill is no mystery: the mental hospitals that were closed decades ago on the pretense that smaller community treatment facilities would handle sufferers more humanely. Of course, few such treatment facilities were established, nor can they be, since few people are willing to live near one.
The same laments are heard everywhere, as they were the other night on the CBS News program 60 Minutes. A state senator in Virginia told how he could not get his disturbed son admitted to a mental hospital within the six-hour limit given to police to hold someone believed to be mentally ill. So the young man was sent back home with his father and the next morning attacked him with a knife and then shot himself to death.
Also on the program a woman from Connecticut complained that her 8-year-old daughter spent 12 days in a hospital before being sent home only to be wracked three days later by more violent urges. Meanwhile the Associated Press reported that a young man charged with murdering his mother in Deep River in December spent years going through hospitalizations, doctor visits, medications, and treatment programs.
The young man's brother said, "He was in and out of that system for four years, and all we ended up with was a disaster." Of course much of the work of DCF itself involves coddling manifestly unstable and incompetent single parents whose children are always at risk, a policy of less than halfway institutionalization that often results in serious injury or death to innocent kids. The refrain across the country and in Connecticut is that "the system" failed mentally ill people who killed someone or themselves. The complaint is valid insofar as serious treatment was not available. But as with the perpetrator in Newtown, with the Connecticut case cited by 60 Minutes, and with the Deep River case, treatment was available on a sustained basis; it just didn't work, because treatment of mental illness is not simple arithmetic.
Rather treatment confronts an often complicated combination of chemical imbalance and emotional distress.. Sometimes it can be treated well enough with drugs and therapy and sometimes it can't.
Sometimes the best that can be done over the long term is to keep people secure, medicated, and away from dangerous objects, as was done when government maintained more mental hospitals. Connecticut probably could fill two or three such hospitals immediately just with the weekly overflow of mentally ill people in general-hospital emergency rooms.
So why aren't the mental hospitals being built? And why Connecticut's concentration on mental-illness treatment for children alone? The trouble is no less profound for disturbed adults and their families. It won't do to blame big, bad insurance companies for resisting coverage for institutionalization. Of course, insurance companies are no more eager to cover mental illness than government itself is; it is often fantastically expensive and perpetual without improvement.
But only government is big enough to handle the problem. Fortunately, if Connecticut is ready to rearrange its priorities it will have the resources, since treating the mentally ill is infinitely more compelling than state government projects already underway like busways, mouse factories, burrito restaurants, and raises and pensions for government employees.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.