Saturday, April 21, 2007

A lot of people are saying that the Virginia Tech shooter should have been forced to do more time on a psychiatric unit, long before he did what he did. I don't know. I wish I had a Bill Frist-like ability to diagnose folks I've never laid eyes on. I don't so I won't.

That said. I was the human rights officer on a locked psych unit. Part of my job was to work closely with patients who had been committed to the ward, forced against their will to loose their freedom for a while. Get locked up.

As you can imagine, a lot of patients who came to us in this manner weren't real happy about it. Some tried to kick the doors down. Others lashed out in various ways at staff. Punched, kicked, scratched and threw things. That kind of behavior sort of gave us a clue that the commitment made sense.

But sometimes the commitment didn't make sense. Sometimes people were wrongly committed, and it was my role to help them get out, get discharged. Get their freedom back.

Doctors and judges have enormous power. Imagine if you heard these words:

" We're going to commit you to a locked unit. The doors are all locked. You will be watched night and day. You can have visitors, but for just two hours a day. You will eat what we give you. You will attend groups. You will take the pills the psychiatrist prescribes. If you show signs of improvement, you will be discharged. If you do not get with the program, you will not be discharged. You will remain locked up. Comprendo? "

Should the shooter have been hospitalized for a long period? Using hindsight, you'd probably say yes. But it's not an easy decision to lock someone up, someone who is bizarre, quiet, doesn't give good eye contact and who writes poems with violence as their theme.

These might be signs, red flags, symptoms. They might suggest that this person will act out in a violent way in the future. And they might not.

Imagine it's you. Imagine it's your son or your daughter. Imagine a country in which it's a lot easier than you think it should be to commit someone to a locked unit.

Then read Solzhenitzyn's novels about the Russian gulag...

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