This time last year I learned a high school crush of mine murdered his neighbor by partially scalping and stabbing him with a samurai sword.
The summer of 2002, still riding on the high of Korea having advanced to the semifinals in the World Cup, an unusual group of high schoolers drifted together for a single, carefree summer. There were seven of us; three boys, four girls. We would, in typical teenager fashion, go for long drives, sometimes successfully convince older friends to buy us alcohol, and sit around smoking cigarettes in our cars while listening to the radio, talking about our futures and the meaning of life. We would often attend house parties with other teenagers sprawled throughout rooms, trance music playing on a CD player, strobe lights flickering against the walls, and one by one everyone would fall asleep on the couches and floor.
I remember lying on the carpeted basement next to one of the guys from this new circle of friends. He was older and went to a different high school, but we had mutual friends and ran in similar circles. I found myself drawn to this smart, well-spoken, and passionate guy. Looking back, I can’t recall a single conversation we had together. I can’t recollect a single topic we discussed. But I remember the delirious thrill of how his lips felt pressed against mine as we laid there in the dark. Then, as all good things do, summer came to an end, and we all went back to our respective high schools and lives. While we maintained individual friendships, all seven of us never hung out together again. Throughout the years empty promises were made to catch up — how we would contact each other to set up a reunion — but it never happened.
Eleven years later, I sat in utter shock as my eyes raced across the news articles and the criminal complaint, reeling from the words I was reading on the screen, struggling to comprehend the chain of events. He had attacked, partially scalped, and subsequently killed a man, claiming to be God and telling the police the universe wanted him to kill the victim. And yet, despite that erratic and ultra-violent behavior, he chose to represent himself in court and coherently argued how psychiatric treatment and being required to take medication infringed upon his rights. Four months later, the judge noted his intelligence and his capacity to articulate legal concepts, but also that his delusional belief system made him incompetent to stand trial, and suspended the case, committing him to the Department of Health Services.
How could this have happened? How had this seemingly "normal," intelligent person ended up in this situation? And even more, how lonely that journey must have been for him. Throughout the years I had intermittently heard stories of mental illness, “something being wrong,” speculation of time spent in a mental facility, diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and failed medications. But try as I could, I couldn’t comprehend how it had escalated to this. How had this young, Korean-American boy, who had grown up in a small, tight knit Christian community in one of the richest counties in America, with a brotherhood of close friends, end up alone and mentally deranged in Wisconsin of all places? How had so many signs been missed, and worse, ignored? Similar questions were asked about Seung-Hui Cho, another Korean-American who grew up in the same area, who would later be responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre.
The worst part is knowing this situation could have been avoided. Lives could have been saved — both the victim’s and his. There needs to be a discussion of the stigma attached to mental illness, as well as the glaring flaws in our mental health care system. We are a country comprised of big pharmaceutical companies who profit off of treating the ill, not curing them, and we as a society spend more time trying to ignore mental illness than trying to understand it. We need to address the obvious failings in the way we treat the mentally ill in our country, as well as focus our attention on the way our prison systems deal with the mentally ill.
According to a report published last year, U.S. prisons are home to ten times more mentally ill Americans than state psychiatric hospitals — individuals’ conditions often deteriorating while they are incarcerated. TEN TIMES. The report, ‘The Treatment of Persons With Mental Illness In Prisons and Jails,’ “calls for reform of laws and practices focused on the treatment of mental illness… encouraging cost studies to compare the true cost of housing individuals in prisons or jails as opposed to treating them in the community.” Furthermore, according to a 2011 article titled ‘Nation’s Jails Struggle With Mentally Ill Prisoners' by NPR, 350,000 is the conservative estimate for the number of offenders with mental illness confined in America’s prisons and jails. More Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than in hospitals or treatment centers, the three largest inpatient psychiatric facilities in the country being jails: Los Angeles County Jail, Rikers Island Jail in New York City, and Cook County Jail in Illinois. The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion each year in the U.S., according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
It’s difficult for some people to understand why I feel a need to rise up and champion a cause to attempt to help this stranger I haven’t seen in over a decade. Perhaps it’s because I love a good cause, or because I realize that he is not a deranged killer but instead a sick man whose own country failed him as we have countless others. Or because I know he will get lost in another flawed system, being numbed and shuffled around from institution to institution. Maybe it's because of a desire to improve the lives of the tens of millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Possibly because it’s hard to ignore the egregious human rights violations that are occurring within our own borders. Or maybe it's because I realize that this guy could have been, well, any of us.
A quarter of Americans experience some form of mental disorder or substance abuse problem at some point in their lives, states the American Psychiatric Association. Untreated, mental illness can lead to unemployment or homelessness, and patients often turn to substance abuse or suicide. As stated above, many are taken to prison instead of receiving necessary care. It’s sadly common knowledge that the U.S. puts more citizens behind bars than any other country in the world. We’ve turned into a nation that addresses its social ills by locking its citizens behind bars, often for life.
There is incredible importance in addressing mental health symptoms early. Mental health conditions can be detected early on, and should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process. We cannot keep waiting to respond only when these often treatable illnesses have escalated to their most critical, potentially life-threatening stages. Often, friends are the first to notice symptoms of someone in the early stages of a mental illness. Early warning signs can lead to intervention that can help reduce the severity of an illness, and it may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.
Furthermore, there is an overwhelming need for increased public dialogue and subsequent action on a national scale to de-stigmatize mental illness, where we can enable people to accept that mental illness is something that they can relate to and have more than likely experienced or witnessed. The goal is to influence public policy by changing the way Americans view mental health. Perhaps if we all come together and work together to fuel a national conversation, we can truly make progress in changing our view and approach towards mental illness.
The only memento I have of that long-lost summer is a jewelry box everyone pitched in to get me for my 16th birthday, engraved Summer 2002. It still sits on my vanity. I just wish I had a picture of all of us. When I close my eyes I'm able to vividly imagine one — the seven of us lazily smiling with youthful exuberance into the camera, optimistically envisioning our limitless futures ahead of us.
[May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you think you or someone you know may have a mental or emotional problem, it is important to remember there is hope and help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness — taking action to help yourself is a sign of strength. If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24 hour crisis center or dial 911 for immediate assistance.]