Recently, a news station aired a debate on whether or not John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan, "deserved" to be allowed to go on unsupervised home visits. The question reveals how little progress we've actually made over the past century in understanding mental illness.
There are many legitimate questions to ask about Hinckley, including: "Is it safe to allow him unsupervised leave?" and "If doctors say he is in remission, how sure are they?" or, "Even if they are sure, should we err on the side of caution?" But it is not legitimate to ask if he deserves a particular activity.
CT scans performed after Hinckley shot the President revealed marked atrophy of the cortex, a common finding in schizophrenia. Hinckley was in fact diagnosed as schizophrenic by his doctors, and he is currently taking the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, which appears to be controlling his symptoms. The development of his schizophrenia followed a classic pattern of deterioration, beginning in adolescence and progressing to delusions, withdrawal, bizarre thinking, and other clear signs of psychosis.
Thus, there is no real debate over the fact that when Hinckley committed his crime, he was suffering from a brain dysfunction that made him mentally ill. Not evil—ill. And there is a huge difference. Asking if he now "deserves" unsupervised leaves is as foolish as asking if a heart patient "deserves" to leave the hospital, rather than asking if it's safe to discharge him.
Mental illness is the only disease in which victims are routinely blamed and punished for symptoms over which they have little or no control—a phenomenon that reflects poorly on us as a society. U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice recently noted, "If we reject the moral necessity to distinguish between those who willingly do evil and those who do dreadful acts on account of unbalanced minds, we will do injury to these people. But the ultimate injury is the one we will inflict on ourselves, and on the rule of law."
Although Hinckley's parents reached out for help before he committed his crime, he received almost no effective treatment. Both they and their son were victimized—as were the people Hinckley injured—by a society that failed to recognize and effectively treat his mental illness, and now blames him for its effects.
Similarly, we blame millions of people with undiagnosed ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental disorders for their perceived "crimes"—laziness, aggression, defiance—without asking if we instead are to blame for failing to help these individuals before their problems escalate to the point where they ruin their lives or ours.
Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is this: do we "deserve" to call ourselves an enlightened society, when we treat the victims of undiagnosed and untreated brain diseases as though they are to blame for their illness?