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Wednesday, Dec 19 2012 11:00 PM

BRIK McDILL: Early touch of loving hand most effective in forestalling tragedy

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    Brik McDill

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Privately owning a 30-clip assault rifle is impossible to justify on any terms. That said, we need to understand that recent mass killings are more about mental illness than gun ownership. Everyone is asking why the uptick in mass killings, and theories and opinions abound -- some more well thought through than others. A common denominator to the more recent killings is mental illness. Why that denominator?

A little history: In the early 1960s, two watershed pieces of legislation were enacted: The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and the Short-Doyle Act. Both had humane motives, but each led to several unforeseen (and unhappy) consequences. They, among other things, led to the mass unlocking of psychiatric hospitals, and made admission to them extremely difficult, amounting to a habeas corpus judicial hearing and action. These were the days around the time when movies like "The Snake Pit" were made at existing state hospitals (specifically Camarillo State Hospital, where I did a portion of my clinical psych undergraduate practicum and postdoctoral internship), and perfectly sane investigative reporters feigned mental illness to be admitted for purposes of exposing the inhumane conditions and treatments patients were living under and receiving. These two enactments led to a permanent mass exodus of inpatients from the many state mental hospitals. At the same time, new psychiatric meds were being developed to relieve the disturbing and dangerous symptoms of mental illness. There was a serious problem with these meds, though: They did not always work, and more often than not, long term use of them led to disfiguring and disabling Parkinson-like side effects. Accordingly, those needing long-term medications for mental illness stopped using them, preferring instead the symptoms of their mental illness over the side effects of their meds.

Where did that leave us? With a huge, nonhospitalized cohort of ambulatory, mentally ill individuals without any secure place to receive appropriate treatment during the most severe reappearances of their mental illness. Major mental illness tends to be lifelong with periods of remission and relapse recurring at varying intervals and under varying circumstances.

The incidence of violence is heightened in the seriously mentally ill (just ask anyone who works in a mental hospital). Psychosis, rage and depression often go hand in hand in those cases where mass killings and suicides co-occur. Mass killings without suicide are an uncontrollable, exploding rage phenomenon, psychosis-related or not.

So, what to do becomes the next question. We can become far more sensitive to the emotional needs of those who find themselves social outcasts or misfits. Surely every school can establish without cost a voluntary buddy system set up between students who care and those who need caring. This might also work with the problem of bullying whereby a cadre of popular student volunteer "protectors" can rally around a victim, sending clear signals to bullies that their actions are not cool. This can also occur at places of worship, or any place of social gathering.

Parents as well can encourage their kids to buddy up with someone who desperately needs a buddy. Estrangement for the rejected kid comes with mounting hurts and anger until the dam finally breaks, which it will. This holds true as well for the bullied kid whose only crime is being different, or sometimes just being at the wrong place at the wrong time and randomly selected for bullying.

Teachers occupy a unique position of surveillance. School counselors can canvass teachers periodically for kids at risk. Teachers can take the initiative in referring such kids to the counselor, or organize a volunteer peer-counseling "I'm Listening" program. Parents of at-risk kids need to be approached by those in a position to know with a comprehensive list of low- or no-cost resources.

The key to stemming the flow of violence is to enter at the earliest possibility into the lives of at-risk kids with a soft touch and open heart. Gun control can only go so far; the touch of a loving hand can go much farther.

Brik McDill, Ph.D., of Tehachapi has spent 40 years in private practice in clinical and forensic psychology. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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