Op-Ed Article from Ann Arbor News, February 6, 2011
Getting help for the mentally ill doesn't always work
The January 11 shootings in Tuscon brought painfully to mind my brother John’s experience with drugs, mental illness and murder in Phoenix. While people speculate that accused murderer Jared Loughner is schizophrenic or had drug-induced symptoms of schizophrenia that contributed to his act of violence, my schizophrenic brother with a history of drug abuse was not the perpetrator but the victim of a violent murder.
Jared and John’s lives took very different paths to their violent climax. Thanks to the resources of our family, John was bumped from the criminal justice track to a treatment track. Arrested, like Loughner, for possession of drug paraphernalia, he was eventually evaluated and treated at a hospital. We hired an attorney who negotiated an arrangement whereby John was released into a halfway house on a year’s probation, with regular drug testing and supervision by a series of social workers who continued to monitor him after the probation was served. John managed to stay off of the crack cocaine and LSD that played such a major part in his life, though he did drink some beer and smoke some pot in violation of the probation. The authorities apparently let this slide. John reluctantly continued to take his medications, primarily because we told him that he would end up back in jail if he stopped taking them. He would move from treatment back to punishment.
According to reports I’ve read, Jared had numerous encounters with law enforcement, including several arrests. Law enforcement authorities knew about him, and Pima Community College suspended him after he violated the student code of conduct. Police officers reportedly spoke with Loughner and his parents, and on October 7 Pima informed his parents that if he wanted to return to school he would need a letter from a mental health official indicating that “his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.” I don’t know if Jared’s parents ever sent him to that mental health evaluation – an opportunity to move him from a law enforcement track and into treatment. Some combination of drugs, mental illness, and personal choices that the courts will evaluate drove him to violence. His demons were evident to many.
The sad irony is that although the system worked for our John, he nevertheless was murdered, probably for the money that our family was providing for his support. No system of gun control would have spared my brother, who was beaten and strangled with a rope that went around his throat to his hands tied behind his back. Treatment was his only hope, and to a large extent it was working. I suspect that people like Jared and John, often living on the fringes of society, are more often the victim of crime than the perpetrator.
I don’t know enough about politics and public policy to suggest how better to move the Jareds in our country from the criminal justice system to the mental health treatment system. The answer may lie with those already devastated by the behavior of the mentally ill: the families who must try to get them the treatment they need. Our family knows that getting an unwilling family member into treatment is difficult – for years we tried, unsuccessfully, to get help for John – and even with relatively successful treatment he ended up murdered. But at least we feel that we did all we could.
David Stringer is a retired Huron High School teacher preparing to publish What’s My Zip Code?, a book about his brother’s life and death.