This Op-Ed, by yours truly, appeared in the November 17 issue of Florida Today.
It was another routine day as a homicide commander in Miami, where I often spent time visiting the Medical Examiner’s Office — aka the morgue — because that was the hub of forensic analysis in death cases.
One day, as I chatted with doctors performing autopsies, I looked to my left and saw a dead female child, about 11, lying on a steel tray, clad only in a toe-tag for identification. I looked twice, then gasped. Lori was my wife’s niece. I had visited her house often. She used her father’s .22 revolver to fire a bullet into her brain.
Lori was just a little girl who seemed normal, yet suffered with emotional anxieties and a lopsided temperament adults dismissed as simple childhood behavior. “Oh, she’ll grow out of it.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause for kids ages 15 to 24. More than 90 percent of children who commit suicide suffered with a severe mental disorder. Veterans commit suicide on average of 20 per day.
Mental illness is not limited to any one demographic group. I handled blacks, whites, Hispanics, females, males, old and young. In many cases, elderly folks simply wanted relief from the struggle of terminal illness. I recall elderly people embracing each other in the back seats of automobiles, with hoses fixed from tailpipe into window. Then, there are dementia disorders, severe depression and delusions.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 11 percent of adults live with schizophrenia. Of the 20 million adults with substance abuse disorders, at least half live with a co-occurring mental illness. In all, roughly 4 percent (or 10 million) experience serious mental illness that limits normal activities.
Social Solutions, a website that studies homelessness, estimates at least 564,700 people live homeless in any given day, half of whom are over the age of 50. At least 8 percent of homeless people are veterans. Mental illness ranges from mild to severe among the majority of these people, mostly ignored.
Discounting those motivated by Islamic terrorism, most senseless mass killings in America are the products of mental illness, to one extreme or another. Many had shown symptoms of mental disorders and/or had established documented records of psychosis, but managed to acquire guns and kill people anyway.
These include mass killers such as Devin Kelley in Sutherland Springs, Texas, 2017 (26 dead); Elliot Rodger, Santa Barbara, California, 2014, (six dead); Adam Lanza, Newtown Connecticut, 2012, (26 dead); James Holmes, Aurora, Colo., movie theater, 2012 (12 dead); Jared Loughner, Tucson, Arizona, 2011 (6 dead plus one wounded congresswoman). The beat goes on.
Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech University is an example of ineffective laws regarding obvious psychosis. After years of demonstrating aberrant behavior, he was declared mentally ill by a special justice and ordered to seek outpatient treatment. He still managed to kill 32 people on campus in 2007.
Whether people are homeless, bullied kids, veterans with PTSD, drug dependent addicts or just psychotic people blending in with mainstream society, there is a vast netherworld spread throughout our nation where people who are in dire need of special attention are ignored until they commit a crime which lands them in prison, our modern-day substitute for mental health institutions. According to the American Psychological Association, over half of state prison inmates suffer from some mental disorders.
I saw thousands of disturbed people during a 30-year police career, which began in 1960 when our population was 190 million. Today our population is 326 million, nearly double. What of the next 50 years?
In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mental institutions cannot hold people against their will who were not convicted of a crime. That precipitated the emptying of 90 percent of the mental hospitals, from roughly 600,000 to 50,000 patients.
Today, we have a significant population of disturbed people that will continue to expand within the netherworld, mostly ignored, unless we find an effective way to address this problem.