In the wake of the Virginia Tech murders earlier this year, Virginia’s legislators are looking at whether to make it easier to commit people who are a danger to themselves or others. This is a complete and utter deflection of the problem that states like Virginia actually face — a decline in support and funding of comprehensive, public mental health services. Virginia lawmakers are basically tinkering with the wording of their laws while Rome burns around them. The Washington Post has the story in yesterday’s edition entitled, Commitment Rule Is Key To Changing The System.
It should be noted that Cho, the person who committed the Virginia Tech murders was, in fact, detained for overnight observation and was examined and found not to be a danger to himself or others back in 2005. Had he been involuntarily committed, no predictions could be made whether that would have increased or decreased the likelihood of his future rampage. The implication of the foolish lawmakers is that it would have made a difference, but the science of predicting future human behavior is no better than chance — you might as well roll a pair of dice to predict such behaviors. Rome will still burn.
Of course, in the face of tragedy, lawmakers are motivated to do something, even if that means doing something that won’t help anyone and will likely result in further wrongful commitments (and lawsuits). The reporter of the Washington Post piece suggests that one must reach a pretty high standard in Virginia in order to be committed, posing an “imminent danger,” not the far lesser threshold, “possible or potential danger.”
The problem is that no matter what the terminology, humans using subjective reasoning and subjective experience and subjective guidelines must ultimately make the very, very subjective judgment.
And of course relaxing the standard making it easier for people to be committed against their will to “treatment” doesn’t make everyone happy. Some people think Virginia’s current high standard still is too easy to get committed under–
“I would make the standard higher than what it is,” said Alison Hymes, who is on the task force examining the commitment process. “I think we’re having too many people committed in Virginia, people who are committed who are not a danger to anyone.”
The result, in many counties, is that jails have become the country’s repositories for mentally ill people and that police constantly encounter people who need treatment but often must commit a crime to get it.
Listen up, Virginia. This isn’t a system in need of a little tinkering with your language! Nobody who works the front lines of mental health in Virginia thinks that removing two words from your procedures is going to fix anything.
Yours is a system, like many U.S. states, in dire need of overhaul from someone who has experience in turning around a public mental health system. If you want to do your citizens a favor and help them, stop the semantic debate and pour real money into fixing the gaping holes in your system.
Only a caring and connected system of mental health care could have helped someone like Cho, not forceful, involuntary commitment 2 years before the crime was committed.