(Dark) Knight in Shining Armor

Aside from Christian Bale’s amazing good looks, Christopher Nolan has made his Batman trilogy focus on the existential state of his major characters. In each movie I have seen hero and villain, alike, wrestle with a decision about what happiness and goodness are. Instead of just providing us with “stock” good guys and bad guys, Nolan gives us characters with realistic strengths and flaws and each plot structure centers around how those are negotiated. Nolan provides us the opportunity to see each person for who they were and who they are — leading us through the maze to see who they will become.

In short, no one is born “good” or “bad”, he is born in a set of circumstances that he must make the best of. And so we see that each villain is treated with horror and sympathy and each hero is treated with admiration and forgiveness.

This is why I love these movies so much — no one is perfect and yet they forge alliances and create change.

But the strategy behind how Nolan treats his villains is particularly appropriate given the shootings in Aurora, Colorado where a mentally ill man killed 12 people. Rightly so, a random act of terror can cause us to feel afraid and angry. And the loss that those families feel is something that I cannot ever begin to comprehend. But in addition to that loss, what I think we should also feel is sadness for a man whose mind could not control the horror in his head. And though he was not a character in a comic, he is the figure that we must try to understand and assist, as well.

It is no secret that there is a strong correlation between crime and mental illness.

Some stats for you: In a report a few years back the US Dept of Justice said that on a national level, 61% of inmates in State facilities have a mental illness and that 13% are homeless.

(The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that 26.2%  of all homeless people have mental illness. In Houston, however, those numbers are higher. Much higher. The Beacon, an organization that provides services to the homeless say that over 50% of folks in homeless shelters in our city are mentally ill.)

Most interesting in my research was this document prepared by The Mental Health Policy Analysis Collaborative of The Health of Houston Initiative of the University of Texas School of Public Health. Published in September, 2009 it outlines some interesting stats on Houston and Texas’ treatment of the mentally ill:

“The United States has 5 percent of the world‟s population, and 25 percent of the world‟s incarcerated population (Liptak, 2008). People with SMI [mental illness] are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population (Hickey & Nguyen, 2007). The Harris County Jail contains more people with mental illness than any other facility in Texas. Every month more than 2,400 of the 9,500 inmates in the Harris County jail are treated for a mental illness, making it the largest mental health care facility in the state (MHMRA, 2009). Jail is an expensive way to treat people with mental illness. It costs $65 a day to house an inmate; it costs $132 a day to house an inmate in the jail‟s mental health unit (Arnold, 2008). This expenditure does not include medication, transport and court costs. Using conservative cost estimations (Harris County Office of Budget Management, “Estimated Harris County Jail Detention Costs,” December 2008), the annual cost of caring for the County’s incarcerated people with mental illness exceeds $48,000,000. These costs are more than twice as high as the cost of outpatient care to these same people (Hickey, J. S. & Nguyen, T. D., 2007)…  Texas ranks 49th in the country for mental health expenses per capita.”

What does this look like to me? Many people are put in jail before they are probably ever treated for mental illness. And that we are doing ourselves a financial and social disservice to not reconsider how we provide mental health services to our community.

Am I saying that the State of Texas, or Colorado, is at fault because a man who chose to murder innocent people did not receive enough mental health services? No.

But here is what I am saying:

Mental illness becomes horrific when it has been kept quiet, when it has not been given the resources it needs to be treated, when it has not been met with compassion.  To think that crime, and particularly a heinous crime, is a simple act of volition is naive.

No one who has a functioning brain, who is well, loved, and cared for wakes up and decides to gun down people. I just don’t believe that. I just can’t believe that.

I think that people can decide to change and that change can happen if they are provided with resources and surrounded by people who love and support them.

1 in 5 people in Houston have a mental illness and 1/3 of you reading have a close connection with someone who has a mental illness. Even with those types of statistics, there is still a powerful stigma around mental illness. Until that stigma is eradicated 20% of our population has the possibility of suffering in silence – maybe not to the degree that they hurt another person but they will still suffer themselves.

What can you do? You can educate yourself. Know the difference between someone with ADD and OCD before you label them. Know the difference between Bipolar and Schizophrenia. Once you start reading about the symptoms that these people have and how they have to modulate their life in order to function, you will be impressed by other people’s ability to be flexible and your ability to be gracious.

Here is a link to the National Institute for Mental Health.

2 thoughts

  1. “And so we see that each villain is treated with horror and sympathy and each hero is treated with admiration and forgiveness.”

    I love this line. I agree that a greater awareness would lead to earlier recognition, and earlier recognition would lead to nipping some of this behavior in the bud. And even for those mentally ill individuals who DON’T feel the need to shoot up a crowded place, I love the idea that greater awareness would lead to greater appreciation for the effort some people put forth on a daily basis just to be able to function.

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