In the past 40 years, scientists have developed ways to immunize against more than a dozen life-threatening diseases. Yet, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, we are no closer to identifying those with mental illness who are dangerous than in 1971, when schoolteacher Alberta Lessard won a groundbreaking legal case that prohibited states from forcing people into care.

That decision required a judge to find a person to be an imminent physical danger in order to compel treatment. It took the decision making away from families and doctors and put it in the hands of police officers and judges.

Without a precise way to measure dangerousness, people who need care may slip through the system with tragic results like those at Virginia Tech and Tucson.

Shrouded in stigma and secrecy, illnesses that affect the brain long have been regarded as distinct from other health issues such as cancer and heart disease. Psychiatric hospitals are separate from other health facilities. Until recently, insurance rarely covered many mental health claims.

It’s been only 30 years since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – a benchmark used by doctors to identify diseases and conditions – defined objective criteria for what constitutes a mental illness.

Without data to develop sound social policy, lawmakers have had to guess at where to draw the line between protecting the public and safeguarding individual rights. That has created a fragmented system with a patchwork of approaches.

Even within a state, the way cases are handled can be determined by where a person lives.

When incidents such as Virginia Tech or Tucson happen, it reignites an entrenched debate about how best to approach the issue.   

For more on this special report, including a 6-minute video and other resources, see Wednesday’ (Dec. 14) story, “Identifying, protecting people with mental illness” on the home page of the Milwaukee

It is a comprehensive report that sheds light on a topic that working professionals are aware of, but which the general public often knows next to nothing about.