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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Reaping what we’ve sown: Virginia Tech & the dismantling of the U.S. Mental Health Complex

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Bernard Harcourt, guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy, draws some damning correlations between historical trends in Mental Health Commitments and the Virginia Tech Shooting:

It’s impossible to make sense of the debate, though, without understanding the extent to which we’ve dismantled our mental health system in this country. Brick-by-brick, cell-by-cell, we deconstructed what was once a massive mental hospital complex and built in its place a huge prison. The sheer magnitude of transformation is absolutely remarkable.

See SSRN: Harcourt, From the Asylum to the Prison: Rethinking the Incarceration Revolution – Part II: State Level Analysis

Because of these sharply different populations, it’s not clear yet what to conclude from my study — and it’s far too early to draw public policy implications. But a few things are clear.

The first is that we should not be surprised that there are so many persons with mental illness behind bars today. We deal with perceived deviance differently than we did in the past: instead of getting treatment, persons who are viewed as deviant or dangerous are going to jail rather than mental hospitals.

The second is that we should not be surprised that our mental health systems are in crisis today. The infrastructure is simply not there. This is evident in states across the country where persons with mental illness are being housed in jails rather than treatment facilities.

What is also clear is that Seung-Hui Cho probably would have been institutionalized in the 1940s or 50s and, as a result, the Virginia Tech tragedy may not have happened. According to the New York Times, the director of the campus counseling services at Virginia Tech said of Cho: “The mental health professionals were there to assess his safety, not particularly the safety of others.” It’s unlikely we would have taken that attitude fifty years ago.

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