On a warm and sunny day a few years ago my partner and I were rolling slowly on police mountain bikes up 7th St in the Hilltop neighborhood. I remember hearing a loud noise from behind us, a noise that sounded like a wild animal screaming, when something crashed into me. I flew threw the air, landed on the street and tasted pavement.
That something that tossed me off my bike and into next week was a human being. In fact, it turned out to be a homeless man with whom I was familiar. At least I thought I knew him. As it turned out I was unfamiliar with this man’s darker half. That part of him, the part that was an unmedicated schizophrenic, was unknown to me.
As you might imagine, cops routinely run across individuals “off their meds.” If you happen to know a police officer and raised the topic, you would see instant recognition in his or her eyes. The stories could go on and on.
Encountering individuals with severe mental health issues is an extremely dangerous part of a police officer’s job. Psychotic episodes can be a violent descent into the angry, tortured realm of troubled individuals who suddenly appear to be immune to pain, stronger than they have any right to be and filled with uncontrolled rage. This is not just perilous for the cops, but for the general public as well.
There have been many recent incidents where individuals having psychotic episodes have used firearms to appease their inner demons. Examples like the Virginia Tech shooting (32 killed, 27 wounded) to the more recent one in Aurora, Colorado (12 killed 58 wounded), have shocked our country. Locally, a young woman with well known mental health problems shot three people at a store on the Key Peninsula (Trib 8/12).
These observations should not be construed as an indictment of the mentally ill. I learned that the hard way – the same individual who launched me off my bicycle with a howl and a hard shove was extremely apologetic and pleasant when we met later that week. Of course, by then he was medicated again.
The matter was best addressed in a letter to Governor Gregoire (excerpts in TNT editorial 8/15), written by Reno and Jennifer Sorenson, the brother and mother of the troubled woman who shot three people in Wauna on August 11. In the letter they express their frustration and despair over their inability to find a safe solution for their loved one. Lacking immediate intervention, they then warn the governor that the young woman’s condition could soon lead to a violent outburst.
It was a prophetic warning. The ensuing violence was frustratingly, maddeningly preventable.
People who suffer with diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other such mental illnesses deserve our compassion. Instead, we fail to even provide adequate treatment facilities and proper care. We have shuttered all the places where those who were most susceptible to psychotic incidents would have been safe from harming themselves.
The gutting of the mental health system began during the Reagan administration, gained traction through tax-cutting initiatives and continues today due to our country’s fiscal implosion.
Now those same people, many with disabling mental health problems, are homeless. They are unmedicated. And sometimes they lash out violently. Search Google for ”mass shootings” and you will receive more than ten million hits (and counting).
We still have a choice. We can recognize the great harm caused by our failure to fund mental health hospitals, wards and outpatient care facilities. We can decide on the best course for obtaining public funds for a compassionate and safe solution for the thousands of patients who currently wander the streets. We can indirectly protect innocent citizens on college campuses, in movie theaters and in stores.
Or we can keep our precious pennies in our pockets and tune in to the next sensational shooting incident. It already comes complete with a scapegoat.