Today on Twitter, someone said that the one thing we have learned so far from the tragic shooting in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords (and others) was that we are failing at dealing with mental illness.
It used to be different. It used to be easy to lock people up for mental illness and keep them far too long. The system was reformed, which led us to err too far on the side of the rights of the mentally ill. The idea was that, as long as people weren’t actively a threat to themselves or others, they should be allowed to do whatever they wanted.
We can see the results of these policies in every city, as terribly mentally ill people with few resources to take care of themselves wander the streets cold, hungry, sick and alone.
Jared Lee Loughner was clearly mentally ill, so much so that teachers and others tried to get him help and failed. The system failed him, and it failed all of us.
The Arizona shootings reminded me of a post I wrote about some friends a couple of years ago –
Note: names have been changed to protect the rightfully nervous
I got a phone message Saturday.
“Hey, Suebob, it’s Ken. Wow, a lot has happened since I saw you last. Call me. I have a new number because we had a murderous psychopath living next door so we had to move out of state.”
Huh? THAT’s not the type of message you get every day. I called him right away and we ended up talking for over an hour.
Here’s the story: Ken, his wife Leila and their 2 young (under 5) children lived in a rural area where they could have chickens and ducks and goats and fruit trees. Living the good life, back-to-the-land style.
They had a neighbor, Dan, who seemed a little odd, but he and Ken worked on a few projects around the place together. Dan admitted to Ken that he had had some mental health issues, but they were controlled by medication and he was seeing a doctor.
As time went by, Dan began to talk paranoid crazy talk, saying that someone in town was out to get him. In fact, she was trying to poison him.
Ken asked Dan if he was still taking his meds and seeing the doctor. Dan said yes.
The weeks passed and Dan got more and more paranoid, saying that other neighbors were ganging up and trying to poison him, and that he thought that maybe he should kill them before they killed him.
What? Huh? Ken began to realize that this was a serious situation. He called mental health to see if there was anything he could do to prevent Dan from going on a killing spree. They brought Dan into a hospital for three days, then released him. When he got out, he was even worse and now he had transferred his paranoid thoughts onto Ken and Leila, saying that they were trying to poison him and control his mind.
Ken got in touch with the police. He found out something about Dan that made his blood turn to ice. About 15 years before, Dan had taken his wife and kids out onto a country road and murdered his wife in front of the children. He had thought she was trying to poison him.
He spent more than 10 years in a state mental health facility, then was released. No probation, no parole, no supervision. Just released.
Ken hired a lawyer and got a restraining order against Dan. He said the courtroom scene was surreal, with Dan saying “But I don’t have anyone! I’m a widower!” Let us remember that he was a widower because he had shot his wife to death.
Ken also contacted mental health again. They suggested that he get a firearm to protect his family. THAT was the advice they gave him – basically kill him before he kills you.
Ken tracked down the police detective who had arrested Dan when he killed his wife. The detective wanted to help and asked if Ken had any evidence that Dan was engaged in illegal activities. Ken knew Dan sold drugs and told the officer that.
The police raided Dan’s house. They found a bunch of meth – including some lined out on a mirror – and a whole bunch of pot. Apparently Dan was not only off his meds, he was high on meth and it was playing into his paranoia.
The police took him into custody. At the bail hearing, Dan’s court-appointed attorney argued that he be released on his own recognizance. Ken went to court and gave the judge a long letter stating all that had happened and the judge, bless him, set the bail very high so Dan could not get out before his trial.
When Ken got home, he looked at Leila and she looked at him. Dan was in jail, but they knew someday he would get out and he thought that the two of them were his worst enemies. They had 2 little kids sleeping in the next room. They packed up their stuff and moved. Far from their friends, far from their families, but safer.
While they were in the moving process, Dan’s brother came to clean out his house because Dan had been evicted for not paying rent. He told Ken that Dan had mentioned Ken to him, and that Dan said he sometimes sat in his chair in the dark with a gun and stared at Ken as Ken moved around inside his home, thinking about shooting him or his wife. The brother showed Ken the gun that Dan had in his house.
“I realized,” Ken said, “That we were probably almost dead.”
So that’s the story. My friends got away from Dan, but those people in Arizona couldn’t get away from Jared Loughner before he started shooting. It was just a matter of luck and timing. That shouldn’t be the case. There has to be a better way to keep people safe – both safe from being hurt and safe from hurting others.
Photo by Alex E. Proimos. Used under a Creative Commons license.