Chris Harper Mercer was not the first person alleged to have serious mental illness to go on a shooting rampage. Before Mr. Mercer killed nine people in Oregon, a review of all mass shootings since 1982 found an estimated 58 percent of the 72 were by someone with mental illness. There have been at least three since I started investigating the nation’s mental health system after the massacre at Newtown as chair of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
But while high-profile acts of mass violence by people with untreated serious mental illness captures public attention, it was the pain and suffering of those with untreated serious mental illness and their families that stunned my committee. We found that in spite of 112 programs spending $130 billion annually on mental health, at least 164,000 of the most seriously mentally ill are homeless, 365,000 are incarcerated, 770,000 are on probation or parole and 95,000 are regularly denied a hospital bed because of the bed shortage. Of the 41,000 who die by suicide, more than 90 percent have a mentall illness. We also found people with a serious mental illness are more likely to be victimized and die earlier.
And the toll on families is heartbreaking. Subcommittee members heard a clear pattern of stories: Families with loved ones who were turned away simply because the programs limited themselves to the higher functioning; federal laws that prevent doctors from telling parents the diagnosis, treatment and pending appointments of their children, making them powerless to help prevent their deterioration; federally funded lawyers ‘freeing’ patients from care over the objection of their parents; patients waiting a week in a gurney in an emergency room because no beds were available. We heard of federally-funded conferences where people with mental illness were taught how to go off violence-preventing medicines; laws that forbid someone to get care until after they become violent and then force them into restrictive inpatient care or incarceration. We heard of people who are so ill they believe they are the Messiah, or the devil, being allowed to refuse treatment that could free them of their delusions and restore their free-will.