I came of age watching Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I still remember the impact of that 1975 film about the inhabitants of a mental institution, watching Nicholson's character, McMurphy, battle against the diabolical Nurse Ratched for his sanity and, ultimately, his life. To this day I remember the scene where the orderlies, at Ratched's instructions, hold McMurphy down and administer electroconvulsive therapy. (SPOILER ALERT) I will never forget the final scene, where Chief smothers a lobotomized McMurphy to death as a way to grant him freedom. My impressions of mental institutions and the care of mentally ill people were profoundly affected by that film, based on Ken Kesey's 1962 book of the same title, set at the Oregon State Hospital.
I hadn't consciously thought about the film in years until this past week, when I saw and read the news coming out of Isla Vista, California. But, now that I think about it, I suspect that the film had been hovering in the periphery of my thoughts since the Newtown shooting.
Nancy Lanza, the mother of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, was the first victim of his murderous rampage in December 2012. He shot her in their home as she lay in bed, before leaving to murder 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Before she was a victim, though, Nancy Lanza was a herald, alerting mental health professionals to what she saw in her son and asking for help. But without specific evidence that he posed a danger to himself and others, they could do nothing -- and then it was too late.
Now it's too late again -- this time for Isla Vista. About a month ago, police were called to check out Elliot Rodger after they received a call from a concerned family member. According to Santa Barbara sheriff Bill Brown, the officers who spoke with him "determined he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold." If Adam Lanza flew under the radar and Elliot Rodger flew under the radar, maybe it's time to reset the radar.
I certainly don't want to go back to the days of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I wonder if our well-intentioned desires have swung the mental health pendulum too far. Would Elliot Rodger or Adam Lanza have revealed their violent intentions during an involuntary mental health hold? Would the time of that hold have allowed the families and authorities to do some digging into the online persona and thoughts of these two troubled young men? If the rules regarding involuntary mental health holds were loosened, how far could the pendulum swing the other way, resulting in needless and harmful labeling and holds?
I don't have the answers, but I think it's time that we, as a society, reignite the discussion on the questions.
As I wrote back in December 2012, "Nancy Lanza knew her son was in trouble and needed help. That much is clear. What is murkier is what sort of help was possible and when." Almost 18 months later the murkiness remains. This new tragedy will undoubtedly ignite passionate debate on a variety of issues; my hope is that the mental health component isn't overshadowed.
There are six dead in Isla Vista -- seven if you count Elliot Rodger, and I think he needs to be counted. I recognize that there were guns and knives and a car involved in the carnage, but at the helm of all of these was one extremely troubled young man. And he doesn't appear to be alone.