July 27, 2015
‘[I]t is harder to get someone into a mental hospital than it is to get a student into Harvard’
A more recent example of this seemingly insoluble problem is James Holmes, the young man who entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 and sprayed bullets into the audience from five different guns, killing twelve people and wounding seventy others. Holmes was seeing a psychiatrist on a regular basis when he committed this horrendous crime. His eruption seems to have been triggered by his failure to pass a test for a Ph.D. He showed many of the symptoms of an Amok killer from an early age. He attempted suicide when he was 11. He was acutely aware that he needed help and had talked to no less than 3 mental health professionals at the University of Colorado in the weeks before he acted. In the course of his trial, in which he was found guilty of mass murder, two psychiatrists hired by his defense lawyer declared Holmes was mentally ill. Two others, testifying for the prosecution, said he was sane – he was aware that he was about to kill and maim dozens of people.
On the day before the carnage, Holmes sent his psychiatrist a notebook describing how he had been buying guns and ammunition and explosive devices, preparing for his rampage. It was discovered, undelivered, after he erupted. On the very day of his crime, Holmes called a mental health hotline, apparently hoping he could reach someone who would persuade him not to act. He twice tried to commit suicide after he was jailed.
Apparently none of the mental health experts to whom Holmes spoke ever tried to commit him to a mental hospital. One of them admitted later that she feared he was dangerous but did nothing to prevent the tragedy.