In my high school health class — which, I must add, was an excellent health class taught by one of the world’s great straight talkers — we had units in, let me think: quack medicine, sex and reproduction, birth control, STDs, drugs and alcohol and basic self-preservation. Probably some more stuff too, but those were the biggies.
I’m sure AIDS has been added to the curriculum by now, as well as homosexuality. What else? Take your pick. Hep B? The perils of piercing? Our health seems to be in such peril.
It was a one-semester class. I have a suggestion: Make health a full-year deal and devote at least a month to studying, discussing and drilling on mental illness. Make sure every kid who makes it through the tenth grade understands depression, bipolar illness, obsessive compulsion and schizophrenia. Among other perils of the chemically unbalanced.
Why? Oh, just reading the accounts of the carnage in my hometown earlier this week, the guy who climbed onstage at a crummy rock club and killed four people. Immediately afterward, I thought what probably most of the nation thought: What a loser. Then I read the third-day stories, and the facts became all too familiar. The Dispatch won’t let you in without paid registration, so let me quote a few passages:
Initially, Gale was friendly and well-liked within their circle of friends, Johnson said. … “But after a while something happened,” he said. “He just kind of snapped. He went from being a cool guy to being a guy you didn�t want to be around.” … He and friend Jeramie Brey said they distanced themselves from Gale six years ago because his behavior drastically changed and he began to scare them. … Once, Gale showed up at Brey�s house and said he wanted to share some songs he had written. The pages of lyrics he wanted to sing, Brey recalled, were copied from Pantera. Gale argued that they were his. “He was off his rocker,” Brey said. “He said they were his songs, that Pantera stole them from him and that he was going to sue them.”
The shooter, Nathan Gale, was 25, which means his abrupt behavior change came at 19, the bullseye age for the onset of psychotic mental illness. Let’s check off the symptoms — social dysfunction, obsession, paranoia, all apparently left untreated for several years. This is just Nance here, diagnosing from the comfort of her armchair on the basis of a few newspaper articles, but I’d be willing to bet Nathan was at least a borderline paranoid schizophrenic, or may have been what they call schizotypal, more or less the same thing.
We had a case not too different here a few years ago. Guy walks into his sister’s living room and opens fire, killing all four people in the room. Why? “I thought they were talking about me.” In this case, in the Gale case, in a million other cases, I thought the same thing: Didn’t anyone figure out this guy needed to see a psychiatrist? The guy in Fort Wayne installed an electronic lock on his bedroom door and changed the combination daily, so paranoid was he about his room being entered. No one thought this was anything more alarming than an eccentricity.
The Columbus sniper of a few months back? Another lost soul, a paranoid schizophrenic who stumbled through the gaping holes in the mental-health safety net: Jen Frisby said she dated Mc-Coy for several years. The relationship ended more than two years ago because of his erratic behavior, she said, including his stated fear of the FBI.
I’m reminded of something a health ethicist told me once: “If a kid falls into a well, we’ll spare no expense or effort to get him out. But buy him glasses so he can see the well and not fall in? Forget it.” That’s the way it is with crazy people, the worst impulses of civil libertarians and conservatives dovetailing to turn them back out into the world untreated or badly treated or refusing treatment, until one climbs onstage at a rock club and kills four people because his favorite metal band broke up. Also, they were stealing his lyrics. I ask you.
Of course, even the people who know better don’t help. The prosecutor in Columbus wants to give the sniper the hot shot. The public demands it, I’m sure. It’s so much better to make a problem go away than deal with it.