Now that someone with mental illness has shot one of Washington's own, maybe Congress will start to pay attention to its abysmal failure to provide care for the most seriously mentally-ill Americans.
We'll see. Lawmakers took a brief lunge in that direction after mentally-ill John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, and an even smaller step in 1988 when Russel Weston, another mentally-ill man, entered the Capitol and shot two police officers. But most mentally-ill people are not violent -- and Congress seems content with ignoring those who are.
I fear legislators will react to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' shooting by giving themselves added police protection -- that is, covering their own butts while leaving everyone else's exposed.
When you read Jared Loughner's rantings on YouTube, you're instantly transported back to the 1980s, when mentally-ill Ted Kaczynski -- the Unabomber -- started a 20-year career of sending bombs through the mail. He was caught only in 1995 -- after family members who read the Unabomber's 35,000-word psychotic manifesto, said, "That sounds like Ted," and told the police.
The family had tried to get help for Kaczynski before then -- but, like most families of people with serious mental illness, faced a Catch-22. They are powerless to do anything other than say, "Why don't you go to a doctor" until after the mentally ill person becomes dangerous.
Here's what Congress should do to save money, improve care and prevent violence:
1) Prioritize the seriously mentally ill. Federal mental-health dollars now go to an astonishing variety of social programs for the worried-well, with little left for the seriously ill. Congress should establish a federal definition of "serious mental illness" that covers no more than 5 percent of the population and require all programs that get federal mental-health funds to use at least 60 percent of those funds for the seriously mentally ill.
D.J. Jaffe is a blogger and founder of Mental Illness Policy Org. To continue reading his op-ed in the New York Post, click here.