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Why There Are So Many Mentally Ill Among Us

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NEW ORLEANS -- In the race to "explain" the Tucson shooting, the sprinters have been those who've found the cause in the rhetoric of one side or the other of the political spectrum. Close behind them have been those who see once again the folly of a society, almost unique in the civilized world, that views gun possession as a birthright.

Now comes another view, at least from me. This country has had toxic political rhetoric since its birth pangs, and there has undeniably followed in the past two centuries an occasional outbreak of political violence. But now we're being told that toxic political rhetoric is dangerous, because of its possible effect on the less rational, more mentally unhinged folks among us. So, maybe it's time to ask this question: Why are they among us?

In the bad old days, this nation had a system of mental hospitals -- sad, dreary institutions in which the unhinged were quite often warehoused, sometimes for life. The worst of them were exposed as "snake pits," cruel and uncaring, and a reform movement sprang up. We should, we were told (by, among others, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan), close down these shameful institutions, and return the patients to their communities, where a system of community-based mental health clinics would administer care that was, well, more caring.

So we closed down the mental hospitals. And we neglected to set up community mental health clinics. And suddenly we had a crisis of homeless people, many if not most of whom were mentally ill.

And now we have this: a society where we're being lectured to temper our political rhetoric lest we inflame the crazies to acts of violence.

This moment is, of course, perhaps the worst possible moment to remind ourselves of our unfulfilled pledge to the mentally ill, that promise that warehousing would be replaced by accessible, community-based care. We don't have the money. We could call off our adventure in Afghanistan and we would have the money, but I don't advise holding your breath about that one.

I'm the last person to advocate re-instituting the old system. I personally helped get someone who was involuntarily, and improperly, committed to such a hospital out, when I was working for a state legislator. But the least we can do is acknowledge, amid all the fun finger-pointing, that we all, Dems and Reps, libs and cons, have failed the mentally disturbed among us. And the bill continues to come due.