An article by reporter Diana Hefley in the Everett HeraldNet tells the sad story of two Washington state residents with serious and chronic mental illnesses who were recently imprisoned for murder. The stories of the millions of mentally ill people who manage to create stable, productive lives for themselves don’t make the headlines, of course. Nor are news media much interested in mentally ill victims of violence, whose numbers far exceed the numbers of mentally ill offenders.
Frankly, I feel a little torn as I write about Hefley’s article. I’m reluctant to perpetuate the myth that mentally ill individuals are invariably dangerous and must be carefully avoided, but I also want to plead for better treatment of individuals with mental illnesses. We need a more effective, well supported mental health care system to help the vast majority of chronic sufferers who are totally harmless to remain stable and constructive, and to keep the violent 1% (http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/14/1/1.pdf) from becoming dangerous to society. And we need a more compassionate citizenry, tolerant of differences and willing to connect with people who share our public spaces, people who aren’t dangerous even though their minds may work very differently from one’s own.
But Hefley describes so well the world that the men responsible for the killings lived in, and she shows that these deaths were almost certainly preventable. Perhaps her excellent reporting may help a few more of us see the need for countering the social stigma of mental illness and improving mental health care in our nation.
As Hefley shows, both men had long histories of problems clearly rooted in psychiatric disorders. But like more than half of Americans with mental illnesses, they did not receive adequate psychiatric treatment – they feared the palpable social stigma surrounding such illnesses, and they fell through gaps in the system. The community needs protection from offenses that might be committed by people, including by those who are healthy and well. But turning prisons into America’s biggest asylums is cruel, costly, shameful evidence of our society’s habit of ignoring people suffering from mental illnesses until one of them is led helplessly into tragedy by symptoms they can’t manage without help.
I hope you’ll read some of my stories about individuals living in Seattle who are successfully managing serious, chronic mental illnesses, in How I started Freestyle Volunteering, tabbed above. Please read them after you read Hefley’s story in the Everett HeraldNet, “Two murder cases show that the mentally ill often have nowhere to go, until they eventually end up behind bars.” My coffee companions “Alfred,” “Gerald, “Mina,” and “Nancy” will lift you up again, with the inspiring truth that individuals with chronic mental illnesses are some of our most heroic, as well as interesting, neighbors.