Monday, January 10, 2011

You, Sir, Are No Atticus Finch; You, Sir, Need Some Psychotropic Help

Yesterday morning, I read an article in The Washington Post about Jared Loughner, the college dropout who shot so many people in Arizona. It described a YouTube profile which listed his favorite books. The usual suspects were there: The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. I haven't read Hitler's book, but I've read Marx, and taught Marx, and so far, the words of Marx have moved my students towards sleep, not gun violence.

I was struck by the other books listed: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Aesop's Fables--what a strange assortment. But almost immediately, I thought, I wonder if he actually read any of these or if these are just the books he can remember or the books that he feels like he ought to have read.

I thought of the world of Atticus Finch. I think that Scout is one of the greatest characters of all time, and her father certainly is a wonder. With To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote a book of such perfection that it's no wonder she never wrote another. If that book really was Jared Loughner's favorite, if the world of Atticus and Scout really spoke to him, could he have done what he did? In the world of Atticus, bullets are reserved for rabid dogs; other disputes are solved in court.

Of course, my thinking presupposes a rational reading mind, and it's clear from reading about Jared Loughner that this man had some mental health issues. Those of you who don't teach in the college trenches might try to console yourself by seeing him as a rare specimen, but I'm here to tell you that he's not. Those of you in the world of politics or talk about politics may try to see him as evidence of rhetoric gone too far, but I'm fairly sure it wasn't right wing rhetoric that moved Jared Loughner to violence. It wasn't thinking of any kind, whether the thinking that inspires divisive political rhetoric or the thinking that inspires a great American novel or the thinking that discovers economic injustice.

The boy was clearly not thinking clearly. He wrote angry rants that declared that his community college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution. He claimed that the government is trying to control people by having grammar rules. This is not the evidence of a mind led astray by the Tea Party. This is the evidence of a brain that needs some psychotropic help.

Lots of minds and pens are calling for an end of angry talk, and that would be great. But perhaps we might also talk about the mental health crisis gripping the country. I think of the teachers of Jared Loughner who probably knew that something was deeply wrong with the student, but who held their collective breath and hoped that they never faced him in a hail of bullets in the classroom. I think of the brave school administrators who forced him to drop out of community college until he got some help (but only after campus police had to intervene 5 times in situations that involved him behaving so disruptively that police were called). I think of his parents, who, even if they had health insurance, probably didn't have much in the way of mental health options--and once he wasn't in school anymore, those services wouldn't have been covered anyway (the new health care law changes that situation, and that portion went into effect this month, as I understand it).

The sad fact remains that even if completely revamp our health care system so that we pay as much attention to mental health as to other types of health, it can still be almost impossibly hard to force the mentally afflicted to get some help. I don't have any brilliant suggestions. But a discussion about the mental health part of the puzzle would be perhaps far more productive than the arguing about 2nd Amendment rights and partisanship and crude political drawings that put people and places in crosshairs. Let's talk about our national priorities that let students like Jared Loughner slip through all sorts of cracks. Let's talk about whether or not we could make some strides towards stabilizing the health--mental, physical, economic--of our young people, so that shooting weapons in a parking lot doesn't seem like the only viable option.

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