Suzanne Fields

Family, experts, police and the Navy collected separate pieces of the story of the mental disturbances in Aaron Alexis' mind, but none pieced together a coherent picture. The focus for blame is now placed on the process of vetting. U.S. Investigation Service (USIS), a private company in Falls Church, Va., conducts about half of all the background checks for the Office of Personnel Management and vetted Aaron Alexis. Neighbors and former spouses of candidates for "secret level" clearance, such as Mr. Alexis, are not interviewed. Even candidates for higher-level security clearance are exempt from questions about prior counseling related to marriage, grief or combat. Veterans, like Mr. Alexis, are usually reluctant to seek psychological counseling, lest they be stigmatized and considered ineligible for employment.

And it's not just veterans. Many people refuse to seek treatment for mental problems because they think it will imperil their chances of getting good jobs, and many times they're probably right. George McGovern dropped U.S. senator from Missouri Tom Eagleton from the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket when it was discovered that Eagleton had had successful shock treatment for depression. Pharmaceutical drugs are the treatment of choice today, but patients have to be diagnosed and treated, and the medications have to be carefully monitored. When a patient lies about his symptoms, as Aaron Alexis did when he sought relief from insomnia, it's difficult for doctors and other medical professionals to identify the problem. Only when it's clear that someone is dangerous to himself and others can he be committed to a mental institution. It's becoming more and more difficult to do that.

A twenty-something woman of my acquaintance has been diagnosed with mental illness. She hears voices and suffers delusions. She frequently drinks to intoxication, which triggers belligerent behavior, and her family has often called for police assistance. A judge refuses to commit her because she does not "appear" to be legally dangerous to herself or others.

Family, friends and public institutions failed Aaron Alexis. We have a system, but it works better in hindsight. Have we the will to change that?

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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