One of the disgusting fall-outs from the Santa Barbara tragedy on Friday is Rep. Tim Murphy’s opportunism to promote his regressive, forced-treatment House bill. He says he’s angry by Friday’s tragedy, where a lonely, narcissistic, shy person by the name of Elliot Rodger decided he was going to take out his anger on a bunch of innocent people.
But if Rep. Murphy is angry, I’m furious.
I’m furious a Congressperson is using a tragedy for self-promotion. I’m furious that — suspending all logic — he somehow believes his bill will be endowed with magical powers to prevent future tragedies of this nature. A tragedy where the criminal was actually assessed by police with specific training to assess people who may be at risk at harming themselves or others.
And who believed a consummate liar. Demonstrating that if someone wants to lie, no amount of laws, forced treatment, or effort will stop them.
Here’s what Rep. Murphy, a Republican psychologist from Pennsylvania, had to say:
Our hearts break for the victims and families affected by the tragedy near Santa Barbara. We pray for their souls to find peace. But I am also angered because once again, our mental health system has failed and more families have been destroyed because Washington hasn’t had the courage to fix it. How many more people must lose their lives before we take action on addressing cases of serious mental illness?
I would love to hear how his bill, specifically, would’ve stopped Elliot Rodger from carrying out his planned crimes. He doesn’t say, but I suspect the idea is that Roger would’ve been involuntarily committed. And then simply “fixed” by some sort of treatment.1
I think Jeff Deeney, an insightful social worker writing over at The Atlantic, can help me connect the dots about how Rep. Murphy believes his bill might work:
Involuntary commitments are not the silver bullet some want them to be in dealing with mass shooters. People who are involuntarily committed frequently leave psychiatric institutions little more stable than when they arrived. Some in the public assume that one can’t refuse medication in a psychiatric unit, when in fact forcibly medicating requires two doctors’ orders submitted to review by a judge, so many patients aren’t stabilized on medication because they resist taking it, even in a hospital setting.
The public assumes that there is some life-changing intervention that happens inside psychiatric units after someone is committed, that leaves them permanently fixed after 72 hours. In fact, it’s more typical receive little more than observation to make sure one doesn’t harm oneself while on the unit. A social worker will refer you to an outpatient mental health program when you’re discharged, but if you don’t want to go to one you don’t have to. If you choose, like so many do, to return to the community with a small supply of medication you don’t intend to use let alone refill, that’s your prerogative.
This is why Elliot Rodger likely would have still committed murder even if the Sheriffs had detained him on the day they visited him. A 72-hour stay on a psych unit might have done little more than but make him more determined. And there’s no evidence suggesting that changing our mental health policies to make involuntarily committing people with mental illness easier to do won’t wind up netting more Elliot Rodger types in the nick of time before they kill.
Rep. Murphy is likely suffering from his false belief that his bill will make a difference because he hasn’t spent very much time in the trenches of actually watching and understanding how the system works, from the front lines.
But this magical thinking has got to stop.
We have got to stop thinking that the answer to these mass shootings is by restricting the rights of people who have a mental illness or a mental health problem. Such efforts will likely have next to zero impact in stopping future shootings. And unless we want to become a nation where we lock up people for just thinking harmful thoughts — ala 1984 — we need to find better solutions.2
- Nevermind that there’s no medication for loneliness, shyness, murderous thoughts or narcissism; nevermind that there are reports Rodger was already in treatment, seeing a therapist; nevermind that the psychological treatments for narcissism are lengthy, requiring years of treatment that few narcissists ever complete; nevermind that narcissism or any of the other traits Rodger appears to have had have any type of connection — statistical or otherwise — to murderous thoughts, or acting on said thoughts. [↩]
- One such stopgap solution is Rep. Barber’s competing House bill, which Psych Central supports. The real long-term solution is to fund mental health treatment at levels that match the overwhelming need that is going unmet — and being ignored by the federal government and most states. [↩]