Muddled public policy lessons from Newtown

Better access to mental health treatment has been one of the two big objectives of political clamor and legislation in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown two Decembers ago. But the state police report on the massacre, released the other day, discloses that the perpetrator, Adam Lanza, had excellent access to such treatment.

Though Lanza's parents were divorced, they were financially comfortable, and his mother, Nancy, with whom he lived, had taken him to doctors and counselors since he was in elementary school, treatment that involved even the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven and a prescription for anti-depressant medication. The report also indicates that the boy resisted treatment and that his mother was skeptical about it.

Indeed, the country is full of mentally ill people receiving treatment who don't get better or who improve only marginally even after years of treatment. While most are not dangerous, some are, and prisons are full of people whose state of mind does make them dangerous if not insane enough to be deemed not responsible for themselves. Every week Connecticut sees murders by people who, as a practical matter if not a legal one, are crazy.

For mental illness is so complicated and its treatment so speculative and unreliable that, in a recent essay, Harold I. Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford and a member of the governor's Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, sought to push the public policy response away from mental health and back toward gun control - gun confiscation, really, since he applauded its implementation in Britain and Australia.

"By no means do all shooters have a diagnosable mental illness," Schwartz noted. "For those shooters who are mentally ill, the illness may be only one of many factors enabling and driving the violence, including substance abuse and dependence, isolation and social disconnectedness, impairments in the capacity for empathy, festering grievances, and political fanaticism, to name a few. What's more, our ability to predict who among the mentally ill will actually be a shooter or exhibit other homicidal behavior is terribly limited."

Maybe what mental health treatment provides most is simply hope for sufferers and their families - and, for politicians, the useful illusion of relevant action and command.

On the gun-control front, in the last days of 2013 the malingering owners of the scary-looking rifles and large-capacity magazines whose sale was outlawed by Connecticut in response to the Newtown massacre rushed to register them with the state police as required by new law as the condition of keeping them. Many rifle owners groused that people who register guns are seldom any threat while criminals never register their guns. With about 300 million guns in private hands in the United States and with resentment of government growing, any law confiscating guns or even getting them all registered might have little success.

Of course, Nancy Lanza was a criminal idiot for keeping guns and ammunition at home with a disturbed young man and teaching him their use even as he was obsessed with violent video games and mass murders. But if she had not been her son's first victim, she too probably would have been registering her guns and magazines the other day. Thus the weapons of the Newtown massacre would have remained in her home with perfect legality and within easy reach of her son, whose worsening condition she and his conveniently absent father failed or refused to appreciate.

That is, if they had been in effect two Decembers ago, these new gun laws would have done no more to prevent the Newtown massacre than any improvements in access to mental health treatment would have done.

As much as we might feel we deserve otherwise, what can be learned from our pain is not necessarily proportionate to it.


Loading comments...
Hide Comments