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Mental health system failing to save lives

September 2, 2015
By Dottie Pacharis , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

James Holmes, who suffers from schizophrenia, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2012 mass shooting that left 12 dead and 70 injured at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colo. He has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One juror's vote saved him from the death penalty. While it was Holmes who pulled the trigger, it is our broken mental health system that bears the responsibility for one of the bloodiest rampages in this county.

According to testimony by the psychiatrist treating Holmes, he had homicidal thoughts three or four times a day but never met the criteria for police intervention. Involuntary commitment laws vary from state to state, but most states set strict controls regarding involuntary hospitalization for adults suffering from severe mental illness, limiting it to circumstances when a person is a danger to self or others. These laws give people with severe mental illness the right to decide when, where, how or even if they will receive care. Yet some serious mental illnesses make it difficult for those affected to assess their need for treatment.

When patient rights exceed necessary protections, individuals with severe mental illness can die because we've protected their civil liberties to remain mentally ill and refuse treatment. Many do die. Some, like Holmes, harm others. Families for decades have had to work within the constraints of these laws as they struggle to get treatment for their loved ones before they deteriorate to a state of danger to themselves or a threat to society.

While we go to great lengths to protect the civil liberties of people suffering from severe mental illness, we sometimes ignore the civil liberties of the general public. They, too, have rights the right to be protected from potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals who are either off their meds or are not being treated at all. The people in the movie theatre had a right to see a movie without being gunned down by Holmes. Our system on one hand allows mentally ill people to go untreated; on the other hand, it sometimes unleashes horror.

I'm the mother of one such adult son who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. During a manic episode, he lost touch with reality and lacked the ability to recognize he was ill. His downward course was aided by a completely ineffective legal system that continually protected his civil right to refuse treatment. Sadly, his third attempt at suicide was successful.

Like Holmes, my son did not meet the criteria for police intervention. Yet the police were very quick to respond to his successful suicide with a body bag in hand.

Congress has an opportunity to overhaul our broken mental health system. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn., and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, recently reintroduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, H.R. 2646. This revamped bill builds upon the previous bipartisan version, breaks down federal barriers to care and addresses the obstacles families face when trying to save loved ones from untreated serious mental illness.

Mental illness is not something people choose. It affects all segments of society. Nearly 10 million Americans have serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression); but, millions go untreated. Mental illness is treatable. It does not have to result in mass shootings or suicide.

Had H.R. 2646 been law during my son's 13-year struggle with severe bipolar disorder, our family would have been able to help him get treatment. He might very well be alive today.

Beach resident Dottie Pacharis is the author of "Mind on the Run A Bipolar Chronicle." Her adult son suffered from severe bipolar disorder before he took his life.

 
 

 

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