Critical System Failure


I knew about the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado before I posted my review of The Dark Knight Rises, but I wanted to make it clear that the two were utterly and completely separate. The Dark Night Rises did not directly cause a man to take up violence against innocents. Christopher Nolan did not goad him into his actions through his portrayal of a comic character that has been around since 1937.

Not many details about the shooter, James Holmes were initially released. We now know that he was a graduate neuroscience student at the University of Colorado, Denver and was going through the process to withdraw. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, implying he was near the top of his class during his undergraduate career. He identified himself as the Joker when arrested. He obtained his guns legally.

Don’t be alarmed, this is not post about gun rights.

He killed 12 innocent people, a number that still has the potential to rise as the days progress. (Edit: My initial post said 23, which is a number I got from an online article I may have misread. As of right now, the death count is still 12)

Columbine, Virginia Tech, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, now this. Massacres that could have been prevented, with more attention to detail. My sister was a freshman at VA Tech, when Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people, wounding 17 others. She was working only blocks away from where Cho’s rampage began. Her then-boyfriend, now-husband, was an engineering major in his senior year and knew some of the victims. I remember the terror I felt when I turned on the television and saw that my sister was in potential danger.

Of these tragedies that have occurred in the last 20 years, they seem to have a common thread: A complete failure on the part of the local and state mental health systems to recognize, intervene, and treat when there was clear evidence of illness and instability.

Why do tragedies such as these occur? Psychologists and criminologists spend valuable time, effort, and money trying to answer that exact question, without putting enough into the prevention of the issues in the first place. As a psychologist, I’m acutely aware of how prevention is an extremely important, yet often unattainable concept in the field.

Some of these men who committed atrocious acts of sudden violence displayed clear signs of instability their entire lives. And yet they never got the help that they needed. I’m not saying that psychological treatment is infallible, in fact the treatment of many disorders is NOT effective without constant and closely-monitored upkeep. However, that constant upkeep is precisely what these men needed. Early intervention, as well as more strict policies against bullying, might have prevented Columbine. Seung-Hui Cho was identified by members of his family and professors as unstable, potentially dangerous. Similar is true of Loughtner, the Gabrielle Giffords shooter.

And yet, our system continues to fail these men, and in turn, fail the victims of their outward violence. I don’t know what to say on this matter, except that I hope one day we’ll learn the error of our ways and stop treating mental health as an optional part of the medical field, and instead treat it as an integral part of the health of the body and society as a whole.

The concept of prevention science is well embodied in the poem “The Ambulance Down In The Valley.” It has different versions and names, but the sentiment remains the same.

The Fence or The Ambulance
Joseph Malines

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant:
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and many a peasant;
So the people said something would have to be done.
But their projects did not at all tally:
Some said, “Put a fence around the edge of the cliff”
Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day.
For it spread to the neighboring city:
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became brimful of pity
For those who had slipped o’er that dangerous cliff,
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds or gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is alright if your careful,” they said,
“and if folks even slip or are dropping,
it isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
as the shock down below-when they’re stopping,”
So day after day when these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would the rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old man remarked, “it’s a marvel to me
that people give far more attention
to repairing results than to stopping the cause,
when they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief, cried he.
“Come neighbors and freinds, let us rally :
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
with the ambulance down in the valley.”

“Oh, he’s a fanatic.” the others rejoined:
“dispense with the ambulance Never!
He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could:
no, no! We’ll support them forever.
Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why would people of sense stop to put up a fence?
While their ambulance works in the valley?”

But a sensible few who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer
They believe that prevention is better than cure
And their party will soon be the stronger
Encourage them, then with your purse, voice and pen
And (while other philanthropists dally)
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

One day. Maybe one day we’ll figure it all out. Until then, we mourn.


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