Smith: Debating same topics over and over and expecting something different is social insanity

Smith: Debating same topics over and over and expecting something different is social insanity

April 19th, 2018 by Roger Smith in Opinion Columns

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, lower left, applauds as Marie Williams, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, delivers a $350,000 grant to Chris Wyre, President and CEO of Volunteer Behavioral Health Friday at the Johnson Mental Health Center in Chattanooga. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy, Judge Don Poole and Judge Lila Staton were in attendance for the presentation. The monies are directed for a pre-arrest diversion program.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

As a child I read the Scripture about Jesus healing a man possessed by evil spirits (Mark, Chapter 5) many times, and I prayed that Jesus would heal my mentally ill mother as he healed that man in the cemetery. Dealing with the mentally ill is not a new issue for me. I have no doubt the family and adopted families of Nikolas Cruz, the Florida school shooter, prayed earnestly for their son before his horrific acts in February.

Families like mine, as well as psychologists, police and counselors who deal with the mentally ill, face difficult decisions that many of us who live in a "normal" world cannot fathom. As a society, our failure to help care for the mentally ill will continue to haunt us, as Cruz and others have blatantly displayed.

After the shooting, many activists rushed to do something. But, doing "something" is not the same as solving problems. We have the same gun control arguments over and over. Common-sense gun laws are needed; however, during the first murder in recorded history, Cain killed his brother Abel without a gun. Should we also outlaw knives, rocks and sticks? Instead, the focus should be on the common denominator in mass shootings and many murders: mental illness.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond frequently discusses the overwhelming number of mentally ill prisoners in our jails because there are no other facilities in which to detain them. The dilemma begs the question: How do we ensure the public is protected from mentally ill citizens who might do harm?

To answer that question, I sought the help of Dr. Larry Thompson. He has spent his entire adult life working in various capacities within mental illness care across Tennessee.

Dr. Thompson shared with me a recent report released by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. Several facts stood out. First, 4.7 percent of Tennesseans had a serious mental illness within the last year — 233,000. Second, of that number, only about 9,000 were admitted to a state hospital for treatment. There are woefully few treatment facilities.

As for our youth, the report revealed that 10 percent of adolescents aged 12-17 experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year (only 33 percent of those received treatment). Correspondingly, Tennessee Department of Health statistics show that from 2005 to 2016, suicide rates for children aged 10-18 soared from 2.8 deaths per hundred thousand to 7.01. In the April 15 edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, writer John Rosemond stated, "Today's child is five to ten times more likely to experience a prolonged emotional crisis than was a child raised in the 1950s."

Why are so many more children today experiencing mental instability? Seas of ink have been spilled on this subject. In addition to the lack of effective care, there are many issues: the impact of the dissolution of the traditional family; the failure to teach children morality — right and wrong; the theory that bad behavior should be ignored; the idea that life should always be "fair"; and the idea that we must be our child's best friend.

Yet, mental illness still strikes those raised in the best homes. Family members are the ones who bear the pain, the humiliation, and often the guilt and confusion arising from applying rational solutions to irrational behavior. They are the ones who must work with mental health professionals to manage the problems. We must provide them those opportunities.

We ignore effective treatment of our mentally ill with devastating consequences. It is easy to propose superficial solutions, like gun control. It is far harder to confront real social problems with real solutions because it involves more than turning serious issues into political talking points.

Roger Smith, a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press, is the author of "American Spirit: The Story of American Individualism."

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