No sooner did I post about the Clinton hostage crisis than the Omaha mall shooting happened, and right away there were questions about the mental health of the gunman.

“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” A sign bearing these severe but hopeful words marks the entrance to Cooper Village, a residential treatment facility for teenagers along the rural northern edge of Omaha.

…Robert A. Hawkins, as a ward of the State of Nebraska, received extensive care at Cooper — private psychotherapy, family therapy, drug counseling — from 2003 to 2005.

It was his longest stop in a five-year journey through a maze of juvenile-services programs that began when he was 13 and was charged with making homicidal threats toward his stepmother.

His was hardly an idyllic childhood. Mr. Hawkins’s parents divorced when he was 3. Officials said that from that point, he lived with his father, Ronald Hawkins, who was in the Air Force, and his mother had little involvement in his life. Both parents remarried and eventually divorced again. A juvenile petition filed in 2002 listed Mr. Hawkins’s father’s address but stated that his mother’s whereabouts were unknown.

In May that year, after Mr. Hawkins threatened to kill his stepmother, he was admitted to the Piney Ridge Center in Waynesville, Mo. Court records show that by that September, he had been hospitalized twice for psychiatric problems, and doctors had diagnosed attention-deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, a mood disorder and “parent/child relational problems.”

When his military health insurance ran out, the elder Mr. Hawkins applied for his son to become a ward of the state. The boy moved in and out of foster care, in and out of school — last year, he eventually dropped out of high school — and through residential facilities, including Cooper Village.

Hawkins had been described earlier in the media as “depressed.” I don’t know the full extent of Hawkins’ mental problems, but I said earlier that I felt there was more going on than just depression, and the article suggests that may well be the case. But the New York Times article also underscores a point I tried to make in the previous post.

But even with the intervention, said Denis McCarville, who runs Cooper Village, the state failed Mr. Hawkins.

“If this were a physical health issue — if he had leukemia — you would not say that as much as possible had been done,” Mr. McCarville said. “This was not pursued. As you can see, there continued to be issues.”

There continue to be issues alright.

When I heard about the Omaha shooting, my first question was: where did he get the gun? In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting experts said that gunman Seung-Hui Cho’s mental illness should have stopped him from purchasing a gun, because a Virginia court declared him to be a danger to himself and sent him for psychiatric treatment. And in November more mentally ill people were barred from buying guns, when the federal list doubled in size.

A federal list of mentally ill people barred from buying guns has doubled in size since the Virginia Tech shootings, and U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey encouraged more states Thursday to add information to the database.

In his first policy speech since taking over as attorney general early this month, Mukasey said states have now reported 393,957 mentally ill people to the federal database used to screen the backgrounds of potential gun-buyers. As of last July, three months after the Virginia Tech shootings, states had submitted only 174,863 names to the database.

Unlike Cho, Hawkins didn’t purchase his weapon, but apparently got his gun from his father’s house, saying that he was going to use it for “target practice.” But that doesn’t quite answer the question why anyone who knew this young man and his mental health history knew he had a gun and didn’t do something to take it from him, if possible.

But maybe they just thought he was handling things better. That’s one of the problems with mental illness. Like physical illnesses, mental illness cam sometimes metastasize while, to all external appearances, the person affected seems reasonably healthy. And like some physical illnesses, mental illness can be buried too deep and detected too late, and once detected may have spread too far to treat successfully.

Hawkins, is seems, received more treatment than most. But my guess is that further examination will reveal, as with Cho’s undiscovered anxiety disorder following the VA Tech shooting, will show that Hawkin’s had mental problems that had not been detected and treated and, as with the report after the VA Tech shootings, lives would have been saved if those mental health needs had been met.

And, as with the VA Tech report, recommendations to improve mental health services will be made. Whether those recommendations will be carried out, or whether they’ll even be addressed before another Omaha shooting or VA Tech shooting happens. Is anybody’s guess.

What’s certain is that, a with any other illness, mental illness left untreated will result in disastrous consequences, for individuals, families, and communities.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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