I am deeply saddened by the events at Virginia Tech. Working at a college campus, it is hard to imagine experiencing such a thing. Just this week I was in discussions with university staff on how to deal with a student who has obvious mental issues. More than once I have been the one signing the 5150 papers to involuntarily commit someone to a mental health facility.
How does a university, or any organization, deal with someone obviously askew mentally? These days there are a number of street drugs that can mimic other mental health problems. How, exactly, does one discern the difference between someone using methamphetamine, and a paranoid schizophrenic or bipolar disorder sufferer? They look similar even to trained eyes. The main difference is that the meth user gets better as the drug wears off. This means that dealing with someone who is behaving strangely requires discerning whether it is drug-induced behavior or serious mental illness. Current laws do not adequately provide for that process.
The whole idea of three-day holds is to help the discernment process. A person can be committed to a mental facility for that period in California. If they spend the whole time sleeping it means they have used meth, and they begin to improve at the end of the commitment, although with meth a four-day hold would be better. Thanks to the effect of street drugs a five-day hold would be still more useful.
Our legislation and financial commitment to mental health issues does not meet the need. Someone who uses meth will be on a manic high for three days, then sleep for three or four days. Current legislation does not allow a long enough hold to get through that cycle. Police usually encounter the person during the manic phase, but by the end of the hold it is not yet clear what is happening. Our legislation needs to match the realities of street drugs.
It does not appear, however, the shooter at Virginia Tech was on any kind of drug. He was a seriously disturbed individual. Current law does not offer many choices to people who perceive serious mental issues in those they interact with. The shooter had been committed on a three-day hold, but was released at the end.
Having served at a mental hospital with a ward of schizophrenic, bipolar and borderline personality disorder patients, I can tell you it takes weeks or months to figure out what is going on with individuals. Some have reacted to a very disturbing life event, some have done drugs that mimic mental problems and others are mentally ill. The cost of mental health treatment has driven our society to a broad-brush approach that gives everyone three days to straighten out. That is so ridiculous as to be criminal, and is driven by the insurance industry.
When I was working on the ward at the mental hospital we had three categories for our patients: crazy, really crazy and tower shooter, the latter in honor of the events at Austin 20 years earlier. The Virginia Tech assailant was obviously a tower shooter in retrospect. The question for us all is how we identify and neutralize such people before the fact, without bankrupting the state.
Duane Ruth-Heffelbower is director of graduate academic programs in peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University. A California attorney for over 30 years, he is also a trained and experienced counselor.