Beyond the Bio

Jimmy Walsh’s Op-ed: Sandy Hook’s Invisible Victims

Jimmy Walsh’s Op-ed: Sandy Hook’s Invisible Victims

Jimmy Walsh, a partner with RumbergerKirk, authored a compelling opinion article that appeared in

Two Invisible Victims

As the shock surrounding the slaughter of 20 innocent children and six of their teachers took hold, we all sought to understand how such a terrible act could occur. Moreover, most of us sought to find “deranged people” at the heart of the cause of such events, and looked for answers which would target “them” and remove “them” from their dangerous exposure to us. Talk of more guns, and less guns, and yes, even “hardened” schools permeated the air. All the while, two victims of our refusal to see also lay dead, but unseen and uncounted. The only consideration for these two victims were thoughts of horror and anger.

While it is difficult at this point to offer any conclusions about the mental health of the shooter, certainly something other than rational thought drove him as he repeatedly pulled the trigger and watched the terrible destruction of so many young and promising lives. Such inexplicable acts of horror had to have a satisfactory explanation to allow normalcy to return to our lives without inflicting any guilt on society. Thus, the prevailing explanation blamed a mother for apparently allowing her son, who had certain issues, to have access to and training in the use of guns. And then, these two victims simply disappeared. Twenty-six victims were appropriately remembered and honored, but why did the other two become invisible?

This mother and her son became invisible long before those terrible events unfolded. Despite the known statistical incidence of mental illness which so many face, either as family members or as victims of the disease, we don’t talk about it, we don’t confront it, and we don’t provide sufficient funding to confront and treat these treatable diseases. This mother and son are invisible because, either we don’t understand, or we, as a society, make them invisible in order to avoid the pain of our own demons. Prior to my own encounters with the statistical incidence of mental disease, such victims were invisible to me as well. They are no longer invisible.

For a moment, imagine you were the parent or sibling or child of a loved one afflicted with a serious mental illness in crisis. Irrational behavior abounds, rational thought is absent, and judgment is totally lacking. Then, imagine the looks and comments of your friends and neighbors, even other family members, who offer little or no assistance or understanding, as you frantically try to get assistance for your loved one in crisis. A prompt appointment with a psychiatrist? We have a serious shortage of psychiatrists; good luck. Access to the community mental health system? What’s that you ask? A great system for community mental health care with devoted personnel, but starved of funding. Hope you are not in a hurry. Call the police, or worse, have them call you? Some are trained in mental health, some not. A trip to the ER with the police could result in many hours and lots of paperwork. Nevertheless, many fine policemen will make that decision and take the time. The jail, of course, is closer, offers no waiting, and does offer legally required minimal medical care. So many, far too many, make this trip, and end up in our prison system, our default mental healthcare system. Try the probate court? We have some great ones, with wonderful psychiatric social workers, and well-trained, fine judges; others don’t even require legal training and have no support system. A commitment petition can get your loved one to the hospital, if you can write a petition sufficiently convincing to show your loved one is an imminent threat to himself or herself or to others. Ever sit down and write everything you could think of which is bad about your child, and then give it to strangers? Such an act is far more difficult than voluntarily subjecting oneself to water boarding. And still, that might not be enough.

What great choices, loaded with guilt, stigma, expense, and a longterm commitment to follow through when one is so tired and mentally exhausted, he or she only wants to hide and forget. Yet, when treatment is adequately and promptly provided, often the patient can function rationally in just a few days, and often return to a much more normal life. At a minimum, one of our fellow citizens is treated humanely in a medical setting for a medical disease, and allowed to live as normal a life as possible.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, we have seen no evidence that the circumstances in Newtown proceeded in a manner designed to avoid the consequences of untreated and uncontrolled crisis. Some friends or neighbors spoke of their impressions of this mother or her son, but the only consequential act we know as a fact was a parental divorce, which often happens when the ravages of mental illness destroy everyone around the patient.

Currently, mental health resources are being dramatically cut nationwide, and Alabama is certainly a leader in low tax government. Despite the best efforts of a very dedicated and talented state mental health system, money talks. Our government officials act as we expect them to act. It is long past time for our representatives to understand that our mental healthcare response can be a shining start which defends the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens. But, and this is a big but, mental health cannot continue to be invisible. It must be adequately funded, properly staffed, and all of us must be involved. Otherwise, each of us who will statistically confront these issues of mental health at some point in our lives will be just as invisible as the two invisible victims in Connecticut.

I know what carnage sounds like, what it looks like and what it smells like. I have seen enough blood spilled in combat to last a life time and more. I also know the fear and pain of personally dealing with a mental health crisis, and the crisis confronted by other similarly situated. I have been invisible, and I have walked with the invisible. We can change this. We can make life better for all. If we can’t afford to do the right thing, please explain to your friends and family how we can afford to pay for the much more expensive consequences of doing nothing, when the inevitable consequences of untreated mental illness occur. We can do better, but we must open our eyes, and we must make this issue very visible.