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COMMENTARY: Visit to an "insane asylum" proves to be life-altering

The middle-aged woman, her wrinkled face twisted in rage, screamed words at us that made no sense. Her disheveled appearance was shocking enough, but the conditions she was living in were even more appalling.

Down the dark and dank hallway, we stopped to gaze at a grizzled old man, missing most of his teeth, who stared intently at a spot on a wall. It was bare. He was looking at nothing in particular and he appeared completely unaware of his whereabouts or the fact that a busload of college-preparatory high school seniors were standing nearby.

Scene after horrific scene played out -- not much different than those found in the Jack Nicholson classic "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" -- and the stunned teenagers were frightened and alarmed at what they saw. It was the strangest school trip I ever took during high school when our social studies teacher took us to a state-run mental-health facility in Cincinnati, Ohio.

There was little political correctness in those days … these places were commonly called “insane asylums” ... and our teacher wanted us to learn about a side of life we knew nothing about.

I still shudder at the memories. The inhumane conditions of the mental-health facility, the squalor that the patients lived in, and utter ambivalence of the staff and the guards shattered young innocence and ushered us into a new perspective about life and humanity. It would help shape my lifelong quest to make the world a better place.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a period dominated by a Democratic majority in Congress, the federal government attempted to improve conditions for the nation’s mentally ill, boosting funding and passing laws to reform the broken system. There were sincere attempts to destigmatize mental illness and to promote understanding and compassion.

Flash forward into the 1980s and the Reagan Administration, bemoaning the rise of the “welfare state,” slashes funding for mental health services and other crucial social programs.

The result? Money dried up, mental-health facilities suffered, and thousands upon thousands of mentally-ill patients were released to unknown futures without access to necessary treatment or medication. Many people believe that the Reagan Administration is responsible for the homelessness crisis that sprung up almost immediately after the budget cuts took effect. No longer was the government trying to help people in dire need … the government was now dumping people on the street to fend for themselves.

It is a terrible irony to note that John Hinckley Jr. shot Reagan on March 30, 1981. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and on Aug. 9, 1982 was indefinitely committed to a psychiatric hospital. He currently is allowed outside visits with his family.

The attempted assassination of President Reagan, one of the most popular politicians of his era, did little to change how America treated its mentally ill or its gun laws.

Flash forward to the 21st century, and America still hasn’t addressed these issues. Shooting massacres continue to shock the nation, and nothing happens other than collective grief and outrage. Politicians run for hiding from the National Rifle Association.

But something happened on Friday in Newtown, Conn., that could change this dialogue. A lone gunman armed with an arsenal of weapons and bullet magazines killed 20 precious children and six adults before turning a gun on himself. We -- as parents, siblings and human beings -- cannot stomach violence against innocent little children who should be learning their ABCs and not fearing death by a raining of bullets from a weapon designed for the the battlefield. We have learned since that Adam Lanza was a 20-year-old loner who shot his mother to death before going on his killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The weapons he used were registered to his mother, Nancy Jean Lanza, who authorities say often took her son Adam with her to the local shooting range. What is wrong with this picture?

Few people will argue that the shooter faced a major mental-health crisis. Few will argue that the shooter should NOT have had access to any sort of weapon. Everyone wonders what went wrong.

President Obama just addressed the nation today, saying he is launching a gun violence task force. The President is right: Now is the time for action, not dialogue. Ban assault rifles. Ban automatic weapons. Ban high-capacity magazines. Approve laws that require a long enough waiting period so authorities can check all purchases to make sure that the buyers are qualified to be gun owners. Make gun-safety classes mandatory.

More importantly, let’s do something about improving our caregiving for those with mental illnesses. Let’s provide ample treatment and access to medicine. Let’s continue to destigmatize mental illness and show compassion and understanding, not only to those who are diagnosed with issues but also to those who are in charge of their care.

What we don’t need, though, are the “insane asylums” of the sort that a bunch of teenagers in Ohio witnessed many years ago.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.