Crime and Mental Illness, Offworld

As I’m trying to construct a future world for my novel to take place in, I’ve stumbled across some interesting problem areas that aren’t often dealt with in science fiction. My story takes place in a future where people have colonized the Solar System to a certain extent, but when the story takes place, the offworld population is pretty sparse – think the American West circa 1840 or so.

On the other hand, that’s still a fair number of people. My thinking is that the population on the Moon, Mars, and low Earth orbit altogether is probably around 15,000, with another 10,000 or so scattered around the rest of the solar system (most of these in the asteroid belt). Compared to the 10 billions on Earth, that’s not very many.

And even though it’s commonplace, even economical in this setting, it’s still dangerous and expensive. So, what do you do when you’ve got a madman on your habitat? Suppose that he’s just mentally ill, or even temporarily disturbed. You can’t just deal with him as you would on Earth (which is to say, force him to deal with this own issues) because there’s a very real chance that he indirectly threatens the lives on everyone he lives with.

When your life is totally dependent upon the air, water, and food that you’ve brought with you, or that you manage to grow in a completely uninhabitable environment, you can’t afford to be circumspect with threats. I’m not Robert Heinlein and I wouldn’t presume that folks would just throw the poor guy out an airlock, but they would definitely have to deal with him somehow.

Worse, every bit of mass that you move around the Solar System costs a nontrivial amount of money. You can’t just buy him a bus ticket home – to move him even from Mars to the Earth at an ideal time might cost $10,000 or more. Granted that’s not much compared to what it costs now, but it’s still not throwaway money. Maybe this would be paid for by insurance.

There’s another question that I’ve hinted at here too: what happens if this guy is also poor? In this setting, humanity has reached the point where not everyone in space is the ideal of an “astronaut.” You don’t need a PhD or an engineering degree to get into space; there are miners needed at the asteroid belts, doctors for all the colonies, mechanics to maintain equipment, and folks to serve others with recreation, food, and so forth.

So someone could have a gambling problem, lose all his money, and get fired. And he’s on the Moon. Or Mars. Or Callisto. What do you do with him then? To people have to pay money out of their paychecks just in case they get fired and have to be sent home? Maybe taxes would pay for it. Oh man, I can just hear the pundits now.

But that’s another post.

3 responses to “Crime and Mental Illness, Offworld

  1. Hey, that’s an interesting problem (I got a similar one, but with (C-)PTSD in non-humans, and more with respect to criminal liability).

    My first question would be, what about psychotropic drugs? By then they will certainly be developed much further than they are today, and some will work much better, maybe even with fewer side-effects. On the other hand, you will also get new drugs with new side-effects, or even after-effects that no one expected… hello, plot.

    In a situation as you describe it, I think the only common sense option is to try and preserve work force if possible. (On the other hand, humanity was never known for its common sense.) And to keep danger to co-workers and equipment low, you can still lock him up.

    If the guy is also poor, then maybe the doctores perceive that as a chance to try out some new drugs, possibly with the okay from insurances and employers. (Yes, I’ve watched way too much bad sf. 😛 )

    Throwing people out of airlocks just creates too much paperwork, methinks. 😉

    As for the fired-and-stranded problem, maybe people automatically get a respective insurance with their job, and will be sent home with the next flight, regardless of their own wishes. Or, if you have small independent businesses, they could try to get hired elsewhere. If human resources are scarce, you don’t always look twice, but take what you get. (Yay! More plot!)

    My two cents. Hope they help.

    • An interesting set of thoughts. I would presume that a lot of common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety would probably be readily treatable through a combination of medication and (long range?) psychotherapy. It’s the more exotic and difficult-to-detect diseases that might cause serious problems, or diseases where there’s a distinct pathology like certain types of dementia. There are also problems in space that you don’t have on Earth that could have a bearing on mental illness: loneliness and isolation and long-term but subtle space adaptation syndrome come to mind. You’d have a hard time treating those with drugs.

      After your comments and some other discussions, I’m think of going the insurance route, probably using a Medicare model wherein everyone puts money into an insurance fund for the unfortunate. That would probably not be popular with the people who are actually paying it, but since spacers are a small and dispersed political bloc, their say is probably not going to get them much.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!

      • You’re welcome, glad it helped (it’s not like it doesn’t give me some good ideas either 😛 ).

        True about the space adaptation syndrome, I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe they have some way to help the lighter cases, especially if the problem is known for a while. Or maybe they’re still experimenting.

        Also true that it’s hard to treat loneliness and isolation, particularly since it’s hard to determine what they will cause (although depression is certainly a favorite). I could imagine that the corporations will try anyway, it’s cheap, after all, compared to other methods. (Note here that I’m violently against using medication for mental illnesses that can be treated otherwise, but for the sake of this discussion I’m trying to think like a careless, profit-oriented corporation boss. 😉 )

        As for the more exotic stuff, I could imagine people get screened for genetic predispositions, and possibly for mental illness in their families, in particular stuff that’s known to be hereditary. I mean, would you send the plumber with the schizophrenic mother to that backwater colony, or the one without known mental illnesses in his family? I’d say among the more everyday jobs you can rule those illnesses out, though it might be different with some rare, highly-payed specialists.

        On a side-note, I like your premise for the story. Sounds much like a book I would read! 🙂

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