When the Cuckoo has no nest

Business Times - 15 Jan 2011

When the Cuckoo has no nest

The effort to protect the rights of the mentally ill has reached a point where an attempt to cure a problem ends up creating unintended costly consequences


IN 2007, Georgia's Valdosta State University (VSU) expelled a student for posting a Microsoft Paint collage in Facebook mocking a parking garage that the school president had referred to as part of his 'legacy'.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organisation dedicated to protecting the rights of students and faculty, VSU claimed that the collage's reference to the 'President Zacari Memorial Parking Garage', was an actionable threat upon the president's life.

The student, a decorated medical technician and a Buddhist, was expelled via a note slipped under his room door.

I recalled these and other incidents detailed by FIRE that involve the expulsion of students accused of violating university codes of conduct - many of them non-politically correct (PC) behaviour - after reading about the student years of Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old man suspected in the shooting a US Congresswoman and at least 17 others outside a Tucson, Arizona grocery store.

Loughner attended Pima Community College for five years - between 2005 and 2010 - and was involved in at least five 'classroom and library disruptions' that were handled by campus police.

According to reports in the press, Loughner apparently made students in his classes very uncomfortable. Steven Cates, who attended poetry writing class with Loughner, told reporters that a group of students went to the teacher to complain about Loughner at one point.

Another student, Don Coorough, recalled that Loughner read a poem about bland tasks such as showering, going to the gym and riding the bus in wild 'poetry slam' style - 'grabbing his crotch and jumping around the room'.

And when other students read their poems, Loughner 'would laugh at things that you wouldn't laugh at'.

'He appeared to be to me an emotional cripple or an emotional child,' Mr Coorough said. 'He lacked compassion, he lacked understanding and he lacked an ability to connect.'

Lynda Sorenson, a 52-year-old who shared an algebra class with Loughner, was clearly disturbed by Loughner's behaviour, and in e-mail to friends that was provided to The Washington Post she wrote: 'We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon. Everyone interviewed would say, yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird. I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast . . .'

Despite the several complaints from students and faculty, college administrators refrained from taking action again Loughner until recently.

In fact, he was only suspended in late September after the college police found a video on YouTube in which Loughner claimed the college is 'illegal' under the US Constitution.

Police officers delivered a letter explaining the decision to suspend Loughner for violating the college's code of conduct to his home.

He was told he could return to campus only for an appointment to discuss the disciplinary actions against him in early October after which he would supposedly be able to resume his studies. It was Loughner who made the decision to withdraw from the school.

So: if you make a 'sexist' comment or as in the case of the accused VSU student, you mock the decision by a university president to use US$30 million of student fees to build a garage, you are expelled from school. And you cannot even appeal the decision.

But if you exhibit the signs of being a mentally disturbed person and students and faculty tell administrators that they consider you to be dangerous, well, in that case you are not even suspended. That happens only after you post a silly video on YouTube. And even then you are not expelled.

And there lies the problem. Like many of the other struggles of the 1960s to end discrimination and to bolster the civil rights and legal protection of members of disadvantaged groups, the effort to protect the rights of people with mental illness has reached a point where an attempt to cure a problem ended up creating unintended costly consequences.

No one denies that there was a time when mental patients would be either neglected or abused in state-run hospital, where their conditions remained untreated and they were experimented on with drugs and electric shock therapy. That inspired films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest that finally drew the public's attention to the civil rights abuses of people with mental illness and ignited pressure to create a national network of mental health facilities.

At the same time, the calls for reforming the mental health system had given birth to an even more radical movement led by legal scholars, sociologists and disability anti-psychiatry activists campaigning for 'deinstitutionalisation'.

Arguing that mental hospitals were creating dependency and helplessness - some even challenging the notion of 'mental illness' - these activists called for releasing individuals from institutions and shortening the length of stays. The result has been the mass deinstitutionalisation of the mentally ill who were supposedly released into the 'community'.

In reality, they were released into the care of their families (if they had one) who lacked the resources and the skills to take care of them.

No longer supervised by health care workers, many of the former patients stopped maintaining their medication regiments and slipped into homelessness and crime.

And at a time when hospitalisation costs were rising, state and federal government agencies jumped at the opportunity to relieve themselves of the financial burden to take care of the mentally ill.

So instead of spending their life in mental care institutions, many of the mentally ill are now 'living' in the streets of large US cities or are residing in government-run prisons which have become the default mental institutions.

No less problematic are the thousands of those who fall in between the cracks - and who like Loughner do not receive any medical treatment - especially when the health-care costs have become so high and spending on mental health care is seen as a 'luxury'.

Hence the Loughners of the world seem to be conducting 'normal' life - although members of their families and communities suspect that 'something is wrong' with them.

Yet in a political-cultural environment where Americans are being instructed not to be 'judgemental', especially when it comes to those who are in the 'challenged' category, the tendency is not to take action that could be labelled 'discriminatory' - until it is too late.

A society that in the name of progressive values refrains from identifying someone as a 'cuckoo' - and that does not provide him or her with a 'nest' - has to face the consequences. From that perspective, last week's shooting in Tuscon was political.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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