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January 10, 2011

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.

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.

  1. January 10, 2011 19:42

    What a chilling story. I’m working on some research this semester on mental illness. It’s eye-opening and heartbreaking how hopeless the situation seems. Having said that, I’m seeing people on the front lines who want to effect change.

    • January 11, 2011 09:19

      It is scary to me that people actually have to become violent before anything is done.

  2. January 10, 2011 20:43

    well, shit, you just blew my plan to move the family out to the country for the good life out of the water. sorry.
    i’ve worked in health care for over a decade and i do think we think we can fix unfixable problems…some minds are just so wrecked. glad your friends were okay. what a freaking story.

  3. January 10, 2011 22:44

    Yes, I agree. While some can be helped, others, like Dan, need to be taken care of, away from the general population. I have great sympathy for illness, right up to when my family is threatened, and then very little. It’s quite sad that we, as a society, are still not better equipped to deal with this very well.

    • January 11, 2011 09:17

      I can understand why we had to reform the system, but I think it might be time for some fixing.

  4. January 11, 2011 07:09

    That story made my hair stand on end.

    I am seeing a lot of people respond to the Arizona killings with the recommendation that MORE people carry guns, just like the mental health people advised your friend. Personally, I don’t think that’s the right solution…

    • January 11, 2011 09:15

      I have mixed feelings about the gun issue. But they certainly don’t keep us any safer – that has been shown over and over.

  5. January 11, 2011 07:50

    That story is terrifying.

    It could happen to anyone.

    We need more and easier access to mental health help. I can’t go to therapy now because my insurance won’t cover it and I am upper middle class. I don’t know what happens to somebody like Dan.

    • January 11, 2011 09:14

      Yes, that is the scary part. He fixated on them because they were there, and because they interacted with him. I shudder to think how it could have turned out. They are still kind of on the run – they try to leave as few footprints as possible, just in case he still wants to hunt them down.

  6. January 11, 2011 07:57

    Weirdly, this is the sanest thing I’ve read since Saturday.

    • January 11, 2011 09:13

      Thanks. I hope some changes are made as a result of this.

  7. January 11, 2011 13:43

    I work in the mental health field and this kind of thing is so scary. There is less and less money and support for people with mental health issues and for those who are trying to provide the support. In the state where I live (as in many others I imagine), a person has to be deemed a serious and imminent threat to themselves or someone else before anyone can intervene if the person is not willing to get treatment…and, as you pointed out Suebob, the intervention may only be for three days. In my state, we have also gone through reform (read: disaster) which means more bureaucratic bullshit and less help available, even for those who do want to get treatment. I think that, until this field is viewed more widely as necessary and something that deserves public financial and political support, it can be hard to make great strides. It is messy and not glamorous and often people don’t want any part of it UNTIL it touches them or someone close to them.

    • January 11, 2011 15:35

      …and I imagine it is its own special kind of stress – working in the field and having your hands tied by law/bureaucracy/funding issues – and knowing that the people you are trying to help may go off and do something terrible to themselves or others.

  8. January 12, 2011 19:14

    Jared Lee Loughner’s parents are living my nightmare; my 8 year old son is seriously mentally ill, and once he turns 18 I won’t be able to compel him to get treatment.

    And what if?

    There is no perfect system, but abandoning people living with mental illness to live as best they can is no better then locking people up in miserable institutions.

    • January 16, 2011 12:38

      That has to be the scariest feeling. I’m so sorry and wish you the best in having your son get the help he needs for the rest of his life.

  9. January 16, 2011 22:28

    it’s scary for everyone, and my only answer is, “someone should do something.” i hate the idea of trampling someone’s individual rights, but what about what they may do to others? i have no idea what the right answer is.

    glad your friend escaped.

    • January 22, 2011 07:51

      We have to start taking better care of people who need help. The irony is that it seems really expensive on the surface, but the cost of treating all those people who were shot in Tucson could probably pay for mental health treatment for 100 people for a year. It’s easier to put mentally ill people in jail.

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