In listening to the news accounts of the Tucson shooter, I am confounded by the very difficult position faced by those who were close enough to know something was just not right with this kid. As one who lives with a disabled adult, I face much more minor issues daily about what is my business and what is Walker’s business, and just what to do when I feel the need to intrude into his “space”.
I finally decided that Walker is indeed an adult, but since he lacks the ability to manage some parts of his life the way most adults do (manage his medical needs, pay bills, drive) he doesn’t exactly have full decision making power. I feel lucky that reasoning usually works with him, and when it doesn’t bribes or threats do. He is pretty much a model citizen at home because I made it clear to him during one unpleasant episode years ago that living with us is a privilege. I suppose the idea of getting kicked out was enough to assure compliance with a few household rules, because there has never been another really serious episode.
I realize, though, that mental illness is not as easy to predict as mental retardation, so we’re kind of comparing apples and oranges.
Schizophrenia is a particularly insidious disease because it usually doesn’t manifest clearly until late adolescence or early adulthood, although there may have been earlier behavioral indicators that were ignored or explained away. It must be terribly baffling to watch an adolescent veer off into insanity just at the time you expect him to be maturing and moving into independence.
Walker’s friend Steffan is a living example to him of what happens when your offenses toward your family are serious enough to get you kicked out of the house…although the social workers involved would probably call Steffen’s alternative living arrangements a “plan of care to assure the well being of Steffan and his family”.
Steffan doesn’t appear to be a dangerous sort, most schizophrenics are not, but his mother stated that he was a threat to her safety when she had him arrested and committed into state custody. I welcome him into my home periodically because he seems to understand the importance of his meds and is conscientious about taking them and his behavior has always been exemplary.
But what if he weren’t? What if I noticed him deteriorating as I did several years ago when he let his hair grow matted and unwashed for months? Should I respect his right to have control of his appearance, assuming that he simply wants to fit in as he hangs around backstage at concerts, hoping to be given some access to rock stars? . What if his suspicious nature escalated into a manifestation of true paranoia? What if some of the stuff he accumulates indicated an unnatural interest in occult matters? What if he purchased a gun?
You’d better believe I’d get involved. I’d contact someone in the tree of providers that provide his services and give them some evidence to support my hunch that something is amiss. I’m not sure anyone would listen as HIPPA laws might even prevent them from acknowledging that Steffan is a client, but I would know I’d done all I could.
According to Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, author of “The Insanity Offense” about 1 per cent of mentally ill individuals are violent and that half the rampage murders in the United States are commited by that population.
I hope that next shooter can be stopped by some friend or family member or acquaintance who isn’t too worried about whose business it is. Safety in public places is all our business.
Perhaps a public awareness campaign of the early signs of mental illness accompanied by an action plan to give those around the subject some idea of what to do could make life happier and safer for all of us, including the mentally ill.
Until then, perhaps we’ll all be a little less polite about minding our own business and think carefully about whether odd behavior constitutes a warning sign.