January 11, 2011

They Say That Arizona is a Healthy Place to Live

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:42 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

The one thing I want to say about the shootings in Arizona is the same thing I say every time we have one of these shootings.   In America it is difficult to get good mental health care.

Lots of people are talking about the fact that he read Hitler’s book, few point out that he also liked reading the Harry Potter Series, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Siddartha.  If only he had decided to obsess about the Buddha rather than the U.S. government.  Read the reports and you will find lots of talk about improving political discourse and almost nothing about improving our mental health systems.

When this young man was kicked out of community college, and told he needed a mental health review before they would readmit him, it was clear he was on one of three tracks.

One: if he had lots of money or very rare and good insurance, and a network of family or friends that would work with him, then he would have gotten counseling, if he was lucky a useful diagnosis, and if very lucky some long term counseling, medication and guidance.

Two: if he did not have those resources he would burn out his friends and family till he became a homeless “troubled” individual shuffling in and out of various shelters and food programs until he either found a good ministry that would give him a place to land or continued to drift downward and out of human community.

Three: he would become more and more frightened, angry and anxious, and would find a way to lash out at the world that he saw as the source of all his suffering.

In a better system the Community College could have brought this man to the attention of local mental health workers who could have begun tracking him and working with him to set a better course for his life.  I know that mental health science is still in its infancy, but we know at least something of what anxious and angry people need and it is not being ignored till they go away.

Most often the approach is to do nothing but glare at people who are talking violence, rambling about conspiracies or showing obvious signs of trouble.   We expect their friends and family, and perhaps their own self-control or hunger for community, to reign them in.  If they continue to live in anxiety or anger, if they continue to suffer  by imbibing the poisons of the mind (passion, hatred, anger, fear), we might isolate these people, we might tell them to “get help,” but we do nothing productive.  We wait until they have burned out their family and friends and let them twist in the wind.  Even after that we wait, but do nothing, until finally the person proves themselves to be “a danger to themselves or others.”  Very, very often the first line of mental health care in this country is the police force.  Religious leaders by and large have very little training to know how to respond effectively to mental health issues other than to offer the palliatives of religious doctrine.  I feel frustrated when people come to me with these troubles because the options are so limited.  We have almost no psychiatrists in Muncie because the hospital system drove them all out about ten years ago.  Some things are better than they used to be, but mental health care still has a deep stigma attached and often the primary option is to give up all your freedom and check into a locked facility while they experiment with various psychotropic drugs.  Most people avoid mental health check ups altogether.  The whole system is still very bianary.  They way our society tends to think of mental health is that you are either crazy or you are not with nothing in between.  The explosion of various anti-depressive medication options and their advertising is changing things, but we have a long way to go.

UU Churches have in our heritage Dorothea Dix.  As part of the liberal Christian tradition she decided that love and compassion had to be expressed not just individually but also through our institutions and social structures.  When she was a young adult the approach to troubled people was also to hide them away or give them to the police force and prison.  Through her life she created the foundations of the mental health care system in our country.  Now more change must be made.  Good mental health care is expensive, but it is less expensive than the cost of living in a society where angry and frightened people have nothing to do but hurt themselves or pick up a gun and start shooting.


  1. I think the comments that you “memory-holed” were very much on-topic Rev. Perchlik.

    • Thank you for posting. Not knowing anything about the situation you brought up I did not feel good about adding it in. Even the details of the shooter’s story in Arizona could make one wonder if any mental health system could have realized his dangerous nature.

  2. agenova said,

    Mental Health Care is not simply about getting authorities to ensure “treatment” for troubled people. Our health rests on social networks, the support of friends, a sense of purpose and value for our selves in the world, a sense of security and hope. The modern world undermines all of these constantly. If we wait until people show signs of trouble to nurture their mental health we will fail more often than not.

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