Talk is Cheap 

A sane mental-health system is not

It is, unfortunately, necessary to state the obvious after America's latest mass shooting in Colorado. We don't know why James Holmes, the 24-year-old suspect, shot up that movie theater. We don't know his mental state. Given the legal presumption of innocence, we shouldn't write with certainty that it was him.

Given how the 24-hour news cycle has expanded the American media's love of speculation, however, the Batman Bloodbath became fodder for political policy prescriptions the moment the first round left the chamber.

We saw it after Columbine, when conservatives blamed goth, video games and the so-called "trenchcoat mafia." Liberals (me included) set their sights on bullying jocks. Both sides were wrong--Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were probably mentally ill--yet the political debate ultimately prompted schools to adopt increased security measures and zero-tolerance policies against bullying. State legislatures passed minor gun-control laws.

The gun-control debate took center stage after student Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. Liberals said people with a history of mental-health issues shouldn't be able to buy guns. Arguing the victims would have been able to defend themselves, right-wingers pushed to allow students to carry weapons on campuses.

Setting aside the caveat that we still don't know why it happened, the big guns/crazy young white guy dynamic leads to two obvious policy prescriptions: gun control and improving access to mental-health care.

Post-Aurora, we're seeing a lot of the former but relatively few of the latter. David Brooks, a conservative columnist at The New York Times, is an interesting exception.

"These killers are primarily the product of psychological derangements, not sociological ones," Brooks wrote. "The best way to prevent killing sprees is with relationships--when one person notices that a relative or neighbor is going off the rails and gets that person treatment before the barbarism takes control. But there also has to be a more aggressive system of treatment options, especially for men in their 20s."

But not everyone has a relative or a concerned neighbor. Without a real commitment to treating mental illness, they're empty words.

A 2008 study found that 6 percent of Americans suffer from serious mental illnesses, which resulted in an estimated economic loss of $200 billion annually in lost earnings.

Sixty percent of people with mental illness seek no treatment. Americans with limited funds must make do with a hodgepodge of options when they feel themselves going off the rails: suicide prevention hot lines, support groups, and absurdly low allocations of shrink visits under group insurance plans.

Along with vision and dental, mental health is an ugly stepsister of the frayed health-care infrastructure. If it isn't overturned by a Romney administration, Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act will help make "mental health parity," forcing insurers to treat mental illness at the same priority level as physical ailments.

Gun control talk is cheap. A mental-health care system that works would be expensive. Would either prevent the next shooting spree? Maybe. Like zero tolerance for bullying, they might be a good idea no matter what--but we won't be any closer to a solution.

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