Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Scary Crazy

I have been feeling so much compassion for the family and friends of Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill man who was beaten to death in the summer of 2011 by members of the Fullerton police department.

I have been feeling a small level of compassion for those police officers and their families.  What they did was inexcusable, but it's a reflection of how our society relates to the mentally ill.  For the defense attorney to say, "they were doing what they were trained to do", is absolutely chilling as it relates the massive number of mentally ill people living on our streets. A person with any character at all would have a hard time sleeping for the rest of their lives after beating someone to death and the fact that they did it would probably change the way people felt about them - whether they were found guilty or not.  If I were those guys and I believed in hell I would be terribly afraid that I was going to end up there.  Who knows they may yet end up eating a gun.  What they did will not every leave them alone.  Those images are in the world for all to see and a not guilty verdict cannot make us unsee them.

Quite honestly I think the DA is an incompetent individual who doesn't understand mental illness and didn't get a jury that understood, or wanted to understand it.  What happend during voir dire?  Did that even come up?  No sane person chooses to live in the street.  That people would think that reflects a lack of compassion that makes me cry.  Most of the people who are living in the streets are dual diagnosis individuals.  They are diagnosed with a mental illness and using street drugs.  They are not compliant on their antipsychotic medication and their parents cannot force them to take the drugs - they are adults.  Most of these people do well when they are on their meds.  They have a difficult time with decision making, time management and simple things like remembering to eat.  All of which are important when it comes to taking your medication.

That the DA couldn't get that information across to a jury is mind boggling to me.  The finding of not guilty to involuntary manslaughter is akin to declaring open season on people who have no where to go and virtually no support in terms of social services.

And again, I'm back to feeling incredibly angry at Ronald Reagan for disassembling the mental health programs that existed in the state of California when he was governor.  I find it so hard to believe that he's such a beloved president.  Mental illness affects so many people and so many families and there are little to no resources available to provide support and education due to his legislative decisions.  The dude thought psychiatry was somehow related to communism and that mental illness could be prevented

My nephew was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 19 and it has been such a struggle for my sister and her family because he is technically an adult, but because of his mental illness he isn't really capable of making adult decision about taking care of himself.  Or even surviving.  He is a sweet young man with a level of emotional intelligence that is beyond most of us.  Even when he is severely psychotic I can see glimpses of him between the weird laughter and the agitated twitching.

Previously my exposure to the mentally ill had been the clients that my father, a social worker, had brought home for the holidays - on a day pass from the mental hospital.  Mostly diagnosed schizophrenics they were heavily medicated, sometimes to the point of drooling, and while they didn't exactly scare me, they made me uncomfortable. 

My father taught classes at the police academy and once took me on a field trip to Metropolitan State Mental Hospital with his class of cadets.  There I definitely felt scared.  I felt scared for the patients, terrified at the idea of having to spend the night in that place.  It was important for the soon to be police officers to have an understanding of the 5150 population so that they could better deal with them in the field.  I guess they don't teach that class in Fullerton.

My nephew went into UCLA Ronald Reagan hospital (irony anyone?) on a 5150 when he first received his diagnosis.  He was renting a room at a friend's house and had spent a week smoking weed in a catatonic state when someone finally called my sister.  Because there had been so much conflict my brother went to pick D up and basically lied to him, telling him that they just wanted him to see a doctor because he was so thin.  Upon arrival he was determined to be a risk to himself and placed under involuntary psychiatric hold. 

The private hospital experience is pretty nice - private and semi-private rooms - not so different from what you'd find on the maternity wing, except for the locked wards.  One can only sustain this level of treatment for a finite period of time before they run out of money.  Unless you are rich it is very difficult to manage treatment for your schizophrenic child who is a legal adult.

After a few years of dead ends at various facilities where D continued to smoke pot which counteracts the effectiveness of antipsychotic meds he ended up on the street.  He lost all of his possessions and was basically a younger version of Kelly Thomas.

Our whole family was terrified that he would end up dead either killed by police or by some psychosis fueled misadventure.  I remember when Margaret Mitchell was killed by 2 bicycle cops on La Brea in 1999.  She was 5' feet tall and 102 pounds and they shot her claiming self defense because she "threatened" them with a screw driver.

Society doesn't have a real understanding of schizophrenia.  It is an unknown, altered reality that turns people into ranting lunatics who don't seem to have any connection to what's happening around them.  They often have poor hygiene and that combined with the dyskenesia that often accompanies long term use of anti-psychotics and the conversations they have with people who arent' there adds to our perception that they are dangerous.  Police officers are not trained mental health professionals but because there are virtually no mental health services they are the public servants most often tasked with dealing with the mentally ill.

It's very rare that a schizophrenic in a psychotic state would attack or hurt someone.  When it does happen it's usually within the family as they are the people most often trying to help.  This story is one of the best descriptions of what the experience is like when someone in your family is schizophrenic.  I don't know what the experience was like for the Thomas family, but I know that they loved Kelly, and what happened is extremely painful for them because it didn't need to happen.  The verdict makes it seem like no one cares that it did.

When I look at the video I feel sick to my stomach.  It's like watching a very frightened animal fight for it's life while being attacked by a pack of predators.  It's all too easy to see my nephew in 10 or 15 years in the same situation.  I can't know the experience of the officers involved, but I'm fairly certain they were frightened and that combined with a lack of education and understanding of schizophrenia escalated the situation to what was seen on the video.

It's why Kelly Thomas died.

The public should be outraged, but we should also be asking ourselves what can be done so that this doesn't happen again.  If the police are going to be the first contact with the mentally ill they are need to be trained so that they aren't so scared.  A schizophrenic in a state of psychosis is generally frightened and paranoid.  Adding fear to that scenario isn't going to end well for anyone. 

It makes those who are supposed to protect and serve scary, crazy and very, very dangerous - especially now that there are no consequences for killing the mentally ill.

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