CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mental illness is hard to define. It varies from mild to serious, from temporary to permanent. It has numerous categories, but patients often display symptoms in several categories. It can be vague, yet quite real. Most patients aren't menacing, but a few can be deadly dangerous. Nearly all of America's massacres are committed by psychotic young men bearing rapid-fire weapons.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one-fourth of U.S. adults, 58 million people, "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year" -- but only 6 percent "suffer from a serious mental illness," the NIMH says.
The difficulty of pinpointing threats and obtaining care is illustrated by a family tragedy in western Virginia near the West Virginia border. State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who was Virginia's Democratic nominee for governor in 2009, was stabbed savagely by his son, who then shot himself to death.
The day before, a magistrate had ordered mental commitment of the 24-year-old son, but local psychiatric authorities said they couldn't find an available clinic bed. Now Virginia's governor has ordered an investigation into this bungle.
Writing in USA Today, Pete Earley -- author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness -- said the Virginia mess shows how the U.S. psychiatric system constantly fails to help sufferers.
Earley's own ailing son couldn't get adequate care, until he broke into a neighbor's house during a manic episode and landed in jail.
"Our nation's jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums," the father says. "Persons with mental illness are ending up behind bars when what they need is help, not punishment."
In an interview with Psychology Today, Earley added:
"People with mental illnesses are dying on our streets. More than 350,000 are in jails and prisons. Most are people whose only real crime is they got sick. What makes me angry -- no, what makes me livid -- is that I believe we know how to help most persons who have a mental illness. We just aren't doing it."
Practically speaking, we don't know whether it's possible to identify dangerous patients accurately and treat them before they commit harm. But authorities everywhere should strive for that goal, and legislators should mandate it.