The mass shooting in Michigan compels us to look again at psychosis, mayhem, and the enormous difficulties in warding off this witch’s brew.
The Crumbley family of Oxford, Michigan, and the victims of Ethan Crumbley’s early semiautomatic Christmas present purchased by Dad on the well named Black Friday, have been on my mind for the past week. I wish they would go away, and I wish It would go away. But they won’t go away, and It won’t go away. “It” being nightmarish gun violence in America.
In writing about annihilations such as this one, I would normally (strange word, that—“normally”)—I would normally jump astride one of my hobbyhorses as a mental-health reform advocate: I would renew my call for early intervention—diagnosing—as a means of thwarting people in the throes of psychosis before they act out their fantasies.
After Oxford and all its complexities, I realize that this “solution” is not enough. It may not even be attainable. Yet we have to try. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.
Instead of dashing off on the hobbyhorse, I have spent the week studying the case and renewing my layman’s education in mental illness. Here’s what has popped up:
It seems clear that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School went nearly as far down the road as humanly possible in reacting to the red alerts in Ethan Crumbley’s pre-shooting behavior. Nearly. On the day before the gunfire that left four students dead and seven wounded, a teacher spotted the 15-year-old Ethan looking at iPhone images of bullets in class. The next morning—D-Day—a teacher noticed Ethan at work on some deeply ominous sketches and writings: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “Blood everywhere,” and “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead.” The sketches depicted a bullet and a bullet-riddled body.
The teacher reported these to a school counselor. Rushed to the counselor’s office, Ethan dismissed the materials as plans for a video game he was working on. (Police later found two videos that the 15-year-old had recorded on the Monday night before the slaughter. They showed him predicting what he was to do the following day.) The superintendent of schools called James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan’s now-infamous parents. In the 90 minutes it took them to arrive, school staff members observed and talked to Ethan as he sat in the office. His Christmas present lay unsuspected in his backpack. On arrival, Crumbleys were told that Ethan needed counseling. James and Jennifer shrugged it off and left. The school administration let the boy return to class. It was better, they figured, than letting him go home to an empty house.
At around 1 p.m., Ethan Crumbley began visiting classrooms.
I wrote above that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School had done “nearly” everything possible to prevent a young person in psychosis from a murderous rampage. What else might they have done? Here we enter the realm of the conjectural, and clarity is essential.
Those staff members acted—at least on the early evidence—with exceptional initiative and responsibility. Should they have gone further and called police? Perhaps. Michigan law permits protective custody and transport to a hospital by police if an officer observes behavior that suggests “a serious danger to self or others.” Would Ethan have sat and waited for the police to arrive at the school, and then thoughtfully exhibited his psychotic symptoms? Not likely, even should the officers have been trained to handle the situation, far from a foregone conclusion. As for these parents giving their permission . . . well . . .
The great, recently deceased advocate D. J. Jaffe best summed up this perverse tic of social policy:
“The law says we can’t do anything until after the psychotic victim becomes dangerous to self or others. As ludicrous as it sounds, the law requires dangerous behavior rather than prevents it.”
So there we are. And here we don’t go again.
Related to the subject of psychosis and mayhem, my week of re-education led me to an essay that merits reading by anyone interested in this issue. It has prompted me to re-think some facile assumptions I’ve let myself slip into. More on it tomorrow.
Among the most infuriating barriers to mental healthcare reform is the indifference of policymakers. The mentally ill don’t form a significant constituency, in voting or in contributions. Thus, you know, nobody cares.
State Senator Cindy Friedman, a Massachusetts Democrat, has burst through this complacency. Working with some colleagues mentioned below, Senator Friedman has crafted an important new bill and shepherded it through the Senate. It is on its way to the state’s House of Representatives for enactment into law.
The ABC Act, as it is called, should be a model for every state in the nation. And it signals to reform advocates that they have a new champion. Kudos to Senator Friedman. And thanks to my fellow advocate Donna Erickson for the heads-up!
Here is a glimpse inside the soul of an activist. Leslie Carpenter of Iowa City, Iowa, is among the very best we have. She has connected, and deeply, with people at all levels of public service to implant her passionate agenda of mental healthcare reform.
She also immerses herself in the lives, the despair, the desperate pleas for reclamation, from ordinary people who see their loved ones in agony. She embraces their anguished stories and does what she can to aid and comfort them. Often, her efforts fall short, as most of such efforts must. And when fatigue and frustration overtake her, she confesses it, eloquently, as in this Facebook post. Read it, please, and absorb a hero’s account of how god damned hard it is for all of us.
Sometimes in the life of being a very public serious brain illness advocate, I have people reach out to me for suggestions for loved ones, resources, etc. I try to respond to all of them and at least make an effort to reach them, give them all of my contact information, and let them get back into contact with me. Not all do, but when they do, I try to listen with a caring heart and share information that might be helpful.
Recently, I was asked to meet with someone who has worked within the system who wanted to share information with me of several cases and system failures they felt I needed to know since I work at the local, state and federal level to improve mental health care.I just left that 2.5 hour meeting feeling filled up with the poison of knowledge of so many cases with adverse outcomes, due to not just gaps in the system, but active choices of key people in the system.I have known there were problems, gaps, and challenges. I now know some of the people who specifically have caused harm, and my soul is feeling overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment.I need to move forward with solving some of this mess, and I will. But for now, I am sitting in a random parking lot crying and processing and figuring out the best next steps.For now, let me say this:We need more people to go public with this humanitarian crisis of not treating people with serious brain illnesses and not paying for them to be housed in the best level of care where they can be the healthiest and most stable.We need to care. We need to act, no matter how terrifying it might be to bring this information forward.#WeCanDoSoMuchBetterThanThis
The documentary-in-progress inspired by my book No One Cares About Crazy People rolls along. Here is an updated promo reel created by the producer, Gail Freedman.
Gail Freedman, the gifted and tireless producer of the documentary arising from my book No One Cares About Crazy People, has just revised and expanded the promo reel for the docu-in-progress. The new, riveting interviews show that Gail has traveled the United States on limited resources, eliciting personal stories from a range of afflicted people and their loved ones. She has also homed in on the unthinkable tragedy of the Rippee family of Vacaville, CA, giving us raw access to the ravaged Mark Rippee. Brava, Gail!
A personal note: the film now opens with my late son Kevin belting out “One More Saturday Night,” accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, at age 7. Kevin was en route to becoming one of the premier guitar artists in the nation when he took his life in 2005 on the eve of his 21st birthday. Schizoaffective disorder.
I gave this tape to Gail early in the process. But I had not then listened to it myself–couldn’t. This morning was the first time I had heard Kevin’s child-voice in about 30 years.
No, seriously–and props, and godspeed to her! Her piece in the October 19 Washington Post turns a rare spotlight on one of the many under-explored areas of corrupt and viperish traps for mentally disturbed children.
Like solitary confinement–into which Ms. Hilton was dumped for a while, even though the foul world of “parent-approved kidnapping” has no law-enforcement authority–these predatory outfits are barbaric relics of the notorious “Bedlam” asyum, founded nearly eight centuries ago. Justice and human decency cry out for their abolishment, yet they and similar atrocities remain in business.
Paris Hilton’s bold denunciation has helped me to understand her for the first time, and to welcome her into the lists of reform advocacy. We need many more like her: public figures (all right, dammit, celebrities) who speak out from raw, often psychically crippling personal experience, to help us end the long sordid reign of abuse toward the mentally ill.
From the Washington Post:
Opinion: America’s ‘troubled teen industry’ needs reform so kids can avoid the abuse I endured
When I was 16 years old, I was awakened one night by two men with handcuffs. They asked if I wanted to go “the easy way or the hard way” before carrying me from my home as I screamed for help. I had no idea why or where I was being taken against my will. I soon learned I was being sent to hell.
I am typing these words in a near-incoherent state. I am consumed with boiling anger that makes me want to scream; black despair; bottomless pity for Rebecca Distel Reinig, the mother of Joseph; for Joseph’s father, and for Joseph, rest his soul. I feel such contempt for the pigsty that is our mental healthcare system and for the hospital and the healthcare factotums who carried out this coldblooded deceitful near-execution. (A sack lunch they gave him before dumping him in the rain. A SACK LUNCH).
I feel trepidation on behalf of certain friends who will read this and feel stricken because they have also felt the sting of American barbarism—institutional and private—as regards mental illness. The Rippee family. The West family. Find them in my blog archives if you don’t know who I am talking about.
Yet I derive hope from the handful of heroes in this country who do not let their own exhaustion and despair halt their crusade: the author and advocate Dede Moon Ranahan, who originally posted Rebecca Reinig’s nightmarish account of her son’s fate. Others.
I know that many, if not most of you, being human, come upon my mental-illness blog posts and read past them. Not this one. Please. Don’t skip this one. Read it, Every word. And learn something about the hellscape that awaits just on the other side of the membrane.
From Rebecca Distel Reinig:
“It’s with a heavy heart and a sadness that I did not know existed in a human soul that I would like to share with you the passing of my son Joseph. He was found Wednesday in some bushes in Oceanside, CA. Alone in the rain. Still wearing the hospital gown that he was had on when he was dropped off by staff from the behavior health hospital on Monday afternoon. His death is a tragedy and could have heen prevented if the doctors and social worker had truly listened to me when I begged them to not release him to the streets. I told them he was gonna die. Keep reading…I will explain the trajedy of his death. His cause of death is under investigation by the San Diego Coronor. An autopsy will be performed within the next few days.He just turned 30.
For those of you who do not know my son’s story, it’s not that much different than thousands of families out there. Joseph lived in transient camps in San Diego County with severe mental illness. We wanted him to live with us. In fact we took early retirements to move him and us away from San Diego 350 miles north to a small town in the foot of the Eastern Sierra mountain range, where I was raised, and where as kids our we would take our children. We thought taking him to the mountains where he loved hiking and fishing, that giving him a stress free life in the mountains and loving him up would “cure” him. His delusions had him convinced that living up here with us was endangering our lives. He was convinced that if he did not leave ” they” would bomb our house, kill us and put him in a cold dark room ( not unlike the padded cell in jail where he would spend days at a time in, naked in a straight jacket).
He lasted living with us for only several months, and thinking he was saving our lives, he went back to the streets of San Diego CA. That was 3 years ago. Since that time his life had been a revolving door of mental hospitals, medical hospitals and jail. He has been hospitalized in behavior health hospitals 9 times this last year. Sometimes against his will, often times he would admit himself. Often times I would drive the 5 hour trip to pick him up, get a motel and would try to convince him to come home. He always refused. Stating our house would be bombed if he did.I’m also angry…that’s not even a strong enough word. Joe admitted himself last week to Aurora Behavior Health Hospital. That was his go to place. He liked the staff and doctors and they seemed to care about him. It was there 2 months ago that the psychiatrist determined he was unable to care for himself and referred him to the County conservitor office so his dad and I could gain control of his medical needs and help him obtain the long term help he needed. The conservitor investigator denied the claim because he did not meet the criteria of gravely disabled. In California the bar is set very high to meet the criteria of gravely disabled. I have yet to know of anyone being successful with that endeavor in california. Accept Britney Spears. Her conservitorship is a slap in the face to those of us whose loved ones truly need help.
Anyway..Last week Joey admitted himself because he was feeling suicidal and was psychotic. He would always call to tell me keep was trying to get help. He wanted help so badly. Last Friday the social worker called and assured me that he would not he released to the streets, she was trying to get him reestabluxhed with a care management team and get him long term housing. I stressed that he could not be released to the streets. She assured me he would not. Monday morning she called and said he was heing released and Gould I pick him up? I asked what happened to the management team and housing. She explained no one would accept him because over the weekend he had been violent with staff. I instantly asked her why would she ask me to pick him up if he had been violent? I begged her to have him out on s 5150 hold to buy me some time to figure it what to do. She was heading to a meeting about him and would talk to the doctors. I was clear when I stated to her that under no circumstances should he be released to the streets. I said he is gonna die of we cannot get him the help he deserves . She assured me they would not and would get back to me. She did not. I called the hospital to talk with Joey monday night, he was not there. Still no call from the social worker. Tuesday morning I called her. she explained that her ” team” had given him a ride to Ocesnside and dropped him off at a CVS pharmacy with his prescriptions and a sack lunch. I was in shock, hung up and waited for his call. He always called. His body was reported to the sheriff’s office Tuesday night but because of bad weather they could not locate him with drones. The homeless lady who reported him took them to his body Wed. morning. He was still wearing his hospital gown and still had a baggy of white powder clutched in his hand. He was steps from the homeless camp. the coronor explained that it appeared he got some bad dope laced with fentanyl. Although suicide and foul play have not been ruled out. What kind of crazy fuck places meth with fentanyl? Its deadly and kills almost instantly.I’m so angry and devastated I want the system to pay for failing him. I want accountability. I m so angry its consumed me. I dont want to he consumed. Yesterday in.my grief i called a wrongful death attorney and babbled like an idiot. I told them i needed an attorney with balls enough to take on the “system” and make the “system” accountable for my son’s death and the needless deaths of all the other josephs out there. I want justice, awareness , accountability and the laws changed that binds the hands of families trying toget help to save their loved ones lives . iI dont want his death to have been in vain. The attorney politely said they will get back to me. I doubt it.Meanwhile we sit here trying to figure out where we will come up with the money to bring our son home and have s memorial for him. Death is such a money making business and for a fee if $250 we can buy 30 minutes if time to see our sons dead body and tell him goodbye . …that is if he is in viewable condition. if not, for an additional 800 they will make him viewable.”
“Rikers houses more than 4,800 detainees on a given day, a majority of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Most do not commit violent acts, and a significant number struggle with mental illness.”
DeSantis speaking at a press conference in southwest Florida,
“I have (three) young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have, we won’t. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”
I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t know. What are the outer limits of rightwing arrogance and delusion? What are the limits of human delusion? Are there any limits?
Does “depraved indifference to human life” have any meaning anymore? Does anything have any meaning anymore?
This . . . man, this father, this college-educated governor of a major state, this grinning buffoon who was elected to protect the well-being of 21.6 million souls–the population of Florida, third-largest in the nation—is instead toying with their health and their lives–AND THE HEALTH AND LIVES OF HIS OWN WIFE AND CHILDREN!—and for what?! Stab in the dark here: his personal political ambition.
Florida is averaging 17,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day as the deadly Delta variant surges. Seventeen. Thousand. A day.
And Ron DeSantis wants to see his kids smiling and having fun. So, no masks. And he’s not going to allow schools to mandate mask-wearing in Florida, either.
Ron DeSantis must have a major smile jones.
Over the past wretched year, the past wretched five years, I have often snapped at friends who wailingly ask, “What have we come to?” “How did we get to this point?”
They ask it in bewilderment over Covid denialism. And the Trump administration. And the post-Trump-administration depravities such as the January 6 Capitol storming. And the subsequent mockery directed at brutalized, traumatized police heroes as “actors” in “political theater.”
And in bewilderment over the armchair rightwingers such as the radio blowhard Charlie Kirk who denounce the tormented Simone Biles as a “selfish sociopath[!]” for withdrawing from the Olympics. (On Tuesday she decided to compete in the balance beam final and won a Bronze medal.) And the others who sneer at “the liberals” who supposedly “shed a tear” over her mental-health crisis.
I tell these worried friends: Don’t just ask, in tones that imply the question is unanswerable. There are answers! Find them! Read! Research! Go online! Google “collective psychosis”! Google “tribalism”!
And feeling ever-so-slightly superior in my own stern rationalism.
Until I could no longer pretend to hear the small voice inside me that kept repeating, more loudly each time: “ . . . Maybe.” With the loudly unspoken corollary: “ . . . And maybe not.”
I’ve spent the past several weeks—well, months—trying to follow my own advice. I’ve pored through books, scholarly articles, and serious journalism to help myself figure out why the political fissures and tensions, always present in American life, have burst into this continental oil-refinery fire. And why those who stand to suffer the most from its many scorching flames are responding by throwing more petroleum onto it. ( Vide: Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida throwing up barriers to commonsense Covid protection so that he can see his children smile and have fun.)
Have you ever heard of a more deranged and irresponsible reaction to an existential threat?
As the father of two loved and loving sons who both contracted schizophrenia, one of them taking his life, I am naturally attuned to the fragility of the human mind. (And infuriated at the fatuous Governor for taking his children’s health for granted.) I’m no psychiatric scholar, no authority of any kind. Yet I have learned enough to understand that none of us is truly “normal.” There really is no “normal.” We all advance through life across a thin membrane, a membrane that could rip and thus plunge any of us into a chronic, incurable brain disease such as schizophrenia. Or, far more commonly, into treatable yet debilitating conditions such as depression, rage, alcoholism, refuge in alienated “tribes,” susceptibility to the lure of seductively tyrannical cults.
I’ve winnowed my explorations to the latter two: the tribe and the cult.
An affinity for either of these collective bodies strongly suggests that even though the adherent may not be seriously mentally ill, she may well be wounded enough by life’s cruelties (including abuse, poverty, addiction, a bad education) that her self-identity is ravaged and she has surrendered the capacity to think and act in her own best interests. She accepts the group’s ethos as her own.
To vastly oversimplify: the tribe is generally a physical community of people nurtured by handed-down beliefs. It has the power to absorb an individual’s identity into its shared values, myths, prejudices, and class/political assumptions. The cult generally does not spring from an organic community. It magnetizes rather than nurtures. Its magnetism has been radically enhanced by the electronic grid. The psychic power of the cult over vulnerable individuals is if anything far greater and more insidious than that of the tribe.
I accept the reality of tribal behavior—like most of us, I have witnessed it and lived it to some degree—yet I’ve found myself leaning to the cult as the powerful source of our present chaos.
Cults attract people who did not necessarily come of age under a cultish spell. Cults attract desperate loners; those whose self-identities have been desiccated; people who virtually doubt their own existence and crave identification with a group that promises them a means of belonging.
I think of QAnon. I think of Chris Hedges’s masterful and ironically titled 2014 book, “War Is a Force that gives us meaning.” I think of the odious threadbare trope, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”
Cults, I came to believe in my hard-earned layman’s understanding, are a form of collective psychosis. Yes, that was it! Shared psychosis.
And then I contacted Dr. Joseph Pierre for confirmation.
Dr. Pierre is professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is copiously published and widely interviewed in the areas of forensic psychiatry, neuroscience, delusion-like belief, cannabis-induced psychosis, and in many topics related to schizophrenia.
Dr. Pierre has studied shared psychosis, yet he does not think it is responsible for our current havoc. In a recent email, he wrote,
“I am firm in saying that movements like QAnon, however crazy they might sound, are not examples of shared or collective psychosis proper.”
He clarified his view in a June edition of the online journal “Medium.” Without intending to speak for him, I infer a proposition even more troubling than psychosis: the rapid erosion of shared reality. The twilight of “the truth.”
Referring to the rash of harebrained theories that accompanied Covid’s rise, Dr. Pierre writes,
“Conspiracy theories reject authoritative accounts of reality in favor of some plot involving a group of people with malevolent intentions that are deliberately kept secret from the public. The psychological underpinnings of belief in conspiracy theories include a long list of associated cognitive quirks including lack of analytic thinking and heightened ‘bullshit receptivity;’ need for control, certainty, and closure; and various attributional biases such as the tendency to ascribe random events to ultimate ‘teleologic’ causes.”
And good luck with that. William Butler Yeats wrote the death warrant for such optimism eighty years ago in a line from “Four Quartets”: “Go, go, go, said the bird. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Not that humankind ever could. In America alone, we have lived with the denial that slavery caused the Civil War since the ink dried on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Thus seven hundred fifty thousand people died over “states’ rights.” (Uh, states’ rights to do what?) The curse of racism stoutly denied is viler than ever today, embedding itself blatantly in our school systems and poisoning free and fair elections.
In April 1966, the cover of Time Magazine thunderously asked, “Is God Dead?”—having answered the question the previous October, in the affirmative. What millions of believers took as the ultimate Truth was pulverized before their eyes.
The academic “deconstruction” crusades of the 1980s gave even intellectuals the vocabulary for denying that truth, and meaningfulness in words, existed. (Besides handing a victory to the anti-intellectual right, the “tenured radicals” found themselves obliged to use words in refuting the meaning of words. An irony lies buried in there somewhere.)
And at about the same time, members of the Reagan administration, including Ronnie himself, were launching their historically effective renunciation of science.
Don’t even get me started on what this meant for poor Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Or for all of us. For the “planet” we “live on.”
Dr. Pierre again:
“Conspiracy theories often arise during times of societal upheaval and can serve a blaming or scapegoating role intended to ‘self-medicate’ fears arising from chaos and uncertainty. Belief in conspiracy theories can also be understood within an overarching ‘socio-epistemic’ framework whereby mistrust in authoritative sources of information leaves us vulnerable to biased misinformation processing when searching for alternative explanations.”
So perhaps Dr. Pierre, and others, have it right: why should we reach for elusive concepts such as “shared psychosis” when the steady, centuries-long assaults on truth and meaning have softened up our frantic civilization for belief, or disbelief, in anything?
Run along and play, DeSantis children, in the open, sunlit, infected Florida air. Have fun. And don’t forget to not wear your masks!
. . . Yet the Texas deputy attorney general’s ignorance about mental illness and his slurring of Simone Biles tells us all we need to know about how much America still needs to learn, and care, about “crazy people.” Especially including powerful people in our criminal-justice system. Which is one hell of a lot of learning and caring. Meantime, more shame on you, college-educated and privileged and complacent Aaron Reitz.