A broken system

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Mass shootings happen often enough to remind us that we haven't revisited all those debates that launch invariably circuital arguments lately. Subjects of these debates include gun control, race and religious freedom. Recently, the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., even spurred debate about the Confederate battle flag.

Upon breaking the story, news outlets throughout the nation spread photos from the shooting, often finding personal photos of the shooter if a mugshot isn't available. This puts a face to the event. This gives all those outraged people a person to blame and base arguments on.

I am not one of those people who plays the blame game when a mass shooting happens. Instead, I think about how easily my family could be at the center of the story. My uncle is a paranoid schizophrenic, and I know his photo could replace any given photo of a mass shooter.

Though mental illness is discussed when mass shootings occur, it's usually placed on the fringe of the more popular, polarizing arguments. Should we take away everyone's guns? Would the shooter be treated differently if he were white? Is racism to blame? These questions have mostly "yes" or "no" answers, so it's a bit easier to ask them.

Questions about the treatment of America's mentally ill aren't so black and white. The short answer is that the system is broken, but proposing ways to fix it requires much more thought than many people want to exert.

I'm not saying those questions about race and gun control have easy answers; while very complex, these issues tend to draw people who use "gotcha" statements and refuse to understand other arguments. They don't invite people who really want to find a solution, just those who want to hear themselves talk.

But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who is completely against or completely in favor of the way mental illness is handled in America. That's because mental illness is often viewed as a taboo. I'm not immune to this; as a teenager, I didn't want to speak of or even acknowledge my uncle's schizophrenia. I remember how everyone ignored him at family functions, aware that something was wrong with him but too uncomfortable to talk about it.

As it's worsened over the years, we've had to talk about it. Uncle Doug has been in and out of facilities since my grandfather died in 2004. He has been arrested several times for possessing firearms and threatening others. He doesn't take his medication despite my nana constantly asking him to.

Somehow, he's returned home after each stay in one of these facilities. Since we can't physically be with Uncle Doug in the facility, my mom and I have questioned whether he's pretending to be better to get released. We know he always promises to take his medication, and we know he always stops taking it after a few weeks.

How can a man who has threatened others and been arrested for possessing unregistered firearms be released from mental facilities time after time on the promise that he'll stop doing the things he repeatedly does?

That's not a problem with my uncle. That's not a problem with my family. That's a problem with the system. Right now, Uncle Doug is in a facility in Texas. He threatened a neighbor last week and was arrested. Unless my mom can get guardianship in the next two weeks, he'll be on the streets again within the month.

I believe that many problems cause mass shootings, but the system that's supposed to protect our country's mentally ill should be one of these key problems. It shouldn't be buried in the comment section of a news article. It shouldn't be a point thrown in just to offset all the polarizing arguments. It should be more important than that.

I wake up every day fearing my uncle's photo will be at the top of my newsfeed on social media. I hope that won't happen, but I know what's to blame if it does.

And it isn't gun control.

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Samantha Jones is a reporter for the Carroll County News. Her email address is CCNNews@cox-internet.com