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Did symptoms of schizophrenia or other mental illness drive the Newtown gunman to murder?  A stream of articles and opinion pieces point in that direction, and suddenly everyone seems interested in fixing a mental health system that should have prevented the tragedy. The gunman’s family did try for years to find solutions for their son’s needs and could not.  Why not?

Is the System Dead?

“It is my contention that there exists no legitimate ‘system’ in the United States when it comes to mental health treatment,”¹ says James Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist writing for Medscape.  To qualify as a legitimate system of care, services must be part of an organized system in which public and private sectors coördinate their efforts.  Such a system does not exist in our country according to Knoll who cites a 1999 report by the Surgeon General of the United States in his article.  Why don’t we have a ‘system’?

Deinstitutionalization in the 60s and 70s, while meant for good, resulted in inconsistent treatment.  According to Knoll, a number of factors contributed to the failure, besides poor planning: “the patient’s rights movement, financial reasons, early hopes for a ‘magic bullet’ in the form of antipsychotic medications, and the never-realized hopes for adequate community mental health services.”  But even if money flowed freely and the best system in the world was established here, would that solve the problem of mass shootings that we’ve seen in the U.S. and elsewhere?

A Perfect System Won’t Cut It

Knoll, who is considered an expert in the study of mass murders does not join the cry in the media that mental illness or schizophrenia causes such tragedies.  Having guns isn’t the main problem either. He explains that the reason a person commits that type of crime is a complex mix of social, biological, and psychological factors and cannot be reduced to one single cause.

Even so, he believes we do continue to miss a deeper issue that can and should be addressed – the cry of the heart of the perpetrators coupled with an absence of personal responsibility.

In his words, the cry of the heart is, “I carry profound hurt.  I’ll go ballistic and transfer it onto you.”

Open Heart Surgery

Knoll says this is “the process by which humans do unto the other that which they cannot stand within themselves.”  They will not face the anger of their own heart, and choose to force others to bear it. But long before they reached the point of harming others, they learned to live without a sense of personal responsibility.

“In the final analysis,” he says, “regardless of “what social or biological factors are involved, ultimately we must take responsibility for our anger.”   The first step is not to blame others for our weaknesses, limitations, or failures — which we’re all prone to do.  Knoll calls the process of examining ourselves and bearing the burden for what we find the ethic of the open heart.

Nine days after Medscape published Knoll’s article online, a letter writer in the The Wall Street Journal, Thomas Doran, pointed out that our culture has chosen to reject “moral norms.”   We sorely lack “civic virtues like personal responsibility, temperance, honesty, generosity, and civility,” he said.²   Both he and Knoll saw the condition of an individual’s heart, and the heart of the culture, as needing change as much as, or more than, changes to the mental health system or gun regulations.

Who Will Make the First Cut?

“I will take the stony heart out of their flesh,” says scripture.  Christianity faces the heart head on, declares it dark and dead until we receive a new breath of life through Christ.  Scripture then directs us to the gradual growth and change of sanctification—enabled and empowered through Christ.

Several scriptures came to mind as I read the article and the letter:
• If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
• Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another that you might be healed.
• Come boldly to the throne room of grace that you might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
• …our heart is wide open.  On our part there is no constraint, but there is constraint in your affections….open wide your hearts to us.  (Paul speaking to the Corinthians)

We cannot perfect every system of aid but we can learn to face the agony in our own lives and our contribution to it.  We’ve been transferring blame since Adam in the garden so we should not assume our innocence too quickly.  As for the wrongs of others against us, I don’t think it’s possible for any of us to live untouched by injustice or cruelty in some form, small or great. Bullies to bombs.

Improve a system? Yes, if you can.  Examine your own heart? Yes, open it now.   Start tending to your own mad-ness.

¹ “Mass Shootings and the Ethic of the Open Heart,” by James Knoll IV, M.D.  Medscape.  Dec. 20, 2012. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/776427?src=nl_topic
²  Letters to the Editor, Thomas Doran, The Wall Street Journal.  December 29-30, 2012.
Scriptures used: Ezekiel 11:19, I John 1:8, James 5:16, Hebrews 4:16, II Corinthians 6:11-13
(Note: Moral change will not eradicate illnesses of the mind or murder.)