There have been many people saying many touching, eloquent things about a tragedy from which our nation will recover, but never quite heal. The Newtown massacre is an event horrible beyond description.
But the event does force us to deal with something we have avoided; something we have been too lazy or disinterested to handle before. And like any matter we avoid in our individual lives, our society's problems don't go away simply because we pretend they don't exist. You probably think I'm talking about gun control, but I'm not. Our society as a whole, and our state in particular, has a problem with mental health.
Liza Long has a compelling piece on The Huffington Post entitled "'I Am Adam Lanza's Mother': A Mom's Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America." In a touching, frightening, and important read, Long describes the difficulties she has obtaining adequate mental health treatment for her teenage son. While he is intelligent and at most times loving, her child suffers from mental health issues that can make him a danger to himself and others. Her son's mental health issues are not being adequately treated, and honestly, won't be. The only entity with the resources to handle the mental health issues Long's son faces is the State of Idaho, where they live. But the only way the state will be interested is if her son is charged with a crime.
I wish I could say things are different here in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Mental health was one of former Gov. Haley Barbour's frequent budget-cutting targets. (The Mississippi Economic Policy Center has a look at what's happened to the Department of Mental Health's budget over the last few years.) In fact, our mental health system is so poorly run, the U.S. Department of Justice has found that we are actually operating in violation of federal law. (Here's a letter with their findings from December last year.)
In Mississippi, most folks think that our mentally ill go to the State Hospital at Whitfield. Those of us who spend our careers in the criminal justice system know better, though. The mentally ill in this state actually go to our jails. Instead of getting the treatment they need in facilities established to help them be productive citizens, they suffer from their diseases and wind up committing crimes. Crimes certainly (and thankfully) on a smaller scale than what we saw in Newtown last week, but real crimes nonetheless, with real victims.
I know this because these people with mental illnesses, our fellow Mississippians, have been my clients. In some cases, I have seen with my own eyes the pictures of their bloodied, lifeless victims; I have held in my hands the gun, the knife, or the hammer that did the damage. In others, I have witnessed the recorded statements of the grandmother kidnapped and robbed, of the child beaten and burned. And nearly every time, my client had a mental illness that was going untreated.
There's always a lot of talk in Mississippi about being "tough on crime", as if harshly punishing the criminal somehow makes the victim whole again. It doesn't. Ask anyone who has ever lost a loved one to crime. Ask the parents of those children in Newtown if they would rather have their child back or have been able to kill Adam Lanza themselves.
You want to know how to really be tough on crime? You want to know how to really be on the side of victims? Support our state's mental health system so that they don't become victims in the first place.
The Legislature is getting ready to go back into session next month. Will they pass legislation to give teachers guns? Or will they do something that actually matters and prevents crime?