Last week, the Christmas season was brutally shattered for at least eight families when a troubled teen chose to end his life and the lives of others in a shooting rampage at an Omaha mall.
Robert Hawkins' parents divorced when he was three. According to an article in the Washington Post, he had substance abuse issues and mental health problems. His family had given up on him, and he became a ward of the state at the age of 14. The article says he "had been a ward of the state from 2002 to 2006" but if you do the math, you realize that this kid simply aged out of the system. If he was 19 now in 2007, he turned 18 in 2006. And if you read the article closely, you realize that Hawkins was not in foster care, but in a mental health facility.
When he left the mental health facility, it wasn't because he was cured or that his mental health issues were under control. It was because he failed to complete community service that was required by the program. There's a shocker -- someone with a mental illness failing to follow the rules. Instead of realizing that this kid had more serious issues, the courts declared him "nonamenable to further services." In other words, we wash our hands of him.
Appallingly, a spokesman for the health department stated that "all appropriate services were provided when needed for as long as needed." Well, clearly that wasn't the case.
What happened in Omaha is eerily similar to what happened at Virginia Tech last year. A kid who was widely recognized to have mental health problems failed to get the proper treatment or be in the proper setting and, as a result, lives were lost.
I've seen traditional mental hospitals and understand why a lot of people are turned off by the idea. I've volunteered at more residential, kinder, gentler, homes for people with mental illnesses and appreciate their ability to care for nonviolent individuals who cannot live on their own in society. Perhaps what we need is a thoughtful combination of the two. As it is, we let most of the violent, mentally ill individuals in our society live behind prison bars, which can't be better than the old-time mental wards, or we make them live in the world, tempting fate that they won't, like Hawkins, find a cache of weapons or other means of hurting others and themselves.
As a society, we are failing these weaker members, these citizens whose brains war against them. If any good can come of these horrible tragedies, perhaps it is that we will wake up and find some solutions to offer real help and protection for the mentally ill.