Today, my wife passed her second and final exam to qualify as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
It's impossible not to juxtapose those two pieces of news. As a country, we've never fully recovered from the 1999 Columbine massacre. While we may not still grieve, schools still enforce all kinds of anti-violence measures with the same earnestness and occasional brainlessness of the post-9/11 Transportation Security Administration (TSA). School authorities tolerate no violent talk, just as TSA employees give you no choice about taking off your shoes. It's highly dubious whether either measure makes anyone measurably safer, but these are the sort of easy, obvious responses that any administrator would embrace.
Effective solutions to the risk of mass murder require more work, expertise, and time. Here's a graph of the money that the US federal government has budgeted for mental health care, distributed as block grants or in other forms. What you see isn't exactly a direct response to the Columbine massacre. Instead, it's a measure of how much your elected representatives put a value on mental health care in general. These figures come from the Department of Health and Human Services' yearly request for funding.
However, funding at the federal level is a poor measure of how money really gets spent, or how effectively we are taking care of the mentally ill (and potentially dangerous). What happens at the state and county levels is far more important. Those are the strata of our federal system where we run our prisons, employ our juvenile case workers, and fund our mental hospitals.
The story in California, where I live, looks a lot like the rest of the nation. Here's a study from 2005 that tells the by-now familiar story. Caseloads are rising. The per capita amount of time allotted to those in need, such as the "troubled teens" that have scared generations of Americans, has dropped. Fewer preventive services are available. Therefore, many of the mentally ill end up in prison, instead of treatment. Insurance that provides mental health coverage is shrinking, shifting the burden further to county and state governments.
In spite of the immediate risk that a mentally ill person may hurt himself or someone else, most Americans don't feel threatened. Even when something truly terrible happens, such as the Colombine massacre, we don't feel moved to act on the scale that the US government has since 9/11. Meanwhile, we encounter the mentally ill all the time, on the streets, in our schools and workplaces, and sometimes within our own families.
Mental health services, from therapy to medication, are imperfect mechanisms. Not every medication works with every patient, and not every patient reliably takes their medication. Therapy doesn't always work, and to work, it takes time.
At the same time, Americans ask far less of the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies involved in counterterrorism. (If you look at the rate of terrorist convictions, the government's scorecard for counterterrorism looks a lot worse than mental health services.) We feel more threatened by foreign terrorists, even though we're more likely to fall victim to crime at the hands of a mentally ill person. The Department of Homeland Security is a bloated embarrassment, gorged on the public trough, too lazy to be bothered to explain why it needs so much and does so little. American voters shrug, and continue to hand over their shoes and toothpaste in the security line.
As of this writing, I don't know who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, or why. Maybe the person was a paranoid schizophrenic, a psychopath with a gun, or just an evil person. I do know that America's collective perception of danger doesn't always fit reality. Government, as conservative critics have often been right to point out, isn't always the solution. On the other hand, budgets are where we show what we really value, because we're willing to spend money on it.