Our community is reeling from a tragic incident that occurred last Friday night.
Air Force veteran Derek Henderson, 38, was killed the same night he was supposed to be taken to a VA hospital.
Local law enforcement came to a home three times last Friday looking for Derek Henderson. But despite an emergency detention court order, the mentally troubled veteran was never taken into custody.
How often does this story repeat itself? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? The system that is supposed to be providing care for those of us with serious mental illness is broken. Who do we blame?
Some point the finger of blame at the mentally ill themselves. Why do we let ourselves fall into such a pit?
Henderson served in the Air Force in Afghanistan and was a certified personal trainer. But his family said he suffered a long battle with mental health disorders.
His behavior became so volatile, his family worked with doctors from the Department of Veterans Affairs to get a court order in Bartholomew County for him to be admitted to a mental health facility.
If we would only seek out help or accept the help that is readily available. If Lady Gaga can live with a mental health diagnosis and be a worldwide celebrity, why are so many who have similar struggles wandering on the streets, breaking out windows of law-abiding citizens?
No, people are not to blame for their flawed brain chemistry. Help is often unattainable and, when it is, comes at a cost too great to bear. Some have “anosognosia” – a brain disorder that makes them incapable of accepting they have an illness, that those trying to convince them otherwise are seeking to do them harm. I applaud Lady Gaga for encouraging people in need to take psychiatric meds, but the friends I meet on psych units, on the streets, and in jail are not Lady Gaga. Persons with serious mental illnesses (SMIs) are not likely to make it on Oprah.
People with SMI often live at the edge of society. They lack the wherewithal to care for themselves and often have no family that can or will care for them.
Perhaps we should blame families?
No, few families are equipped to manage the erratic and often expensive care a person with SMI requires. I am one of the rare blessed ones. I have family and friends watching over me. But I am not part of the 50% who have anognosia. I know I am ill, that I need help. This makes things easier for them to provide a safety net. Few people with SMIs have such a situation. Even when families provide a strong safety net, it may not be enough to hold up a loved one who is falling. SMIs are chronic, and sometimes even fatal brain diseases. We can pray, share words of encouragement, and offer the best support and it may not be enough.
Should we blame law enforcement?
Columbus Police said they went to the house at 11 a.m. Friday, but could not contact Henderson. Officers came back at 2 p.m., but Henderson refused assistance.
The sheriff’s department initiated the third call on the house after 6 p.m. with assistance from Columbus police. But it is not clear why Henderson was still not detained.
“Very disappointed, a lot of questions: Why didn’t it happen? Why wasn’t he picked up? Understanding that there was some confusion earlier in the day about the transportation where he was to be transported to. But once that got clarified, why wasn’t it done?” said Chris Monroe, who is the uncle of Henderson’s widow.
This particular case is still being investigated, so it is premature to comment on it. I can say that police officers have a difficult if not impossible role to play. They are charged with preserving public safety while protecting individual rights. They are often handicapped when it comes to mental illness. Currently legislation dictates that for a person with a mental illness to be detained for psychiatric reasons, s/he must be “an imminent risk of harm to self or others;” or, “gravely mentally handicapped.” Even in the case that a person is detained on a psych unit, they can only be held for a maximum of 72 hours before release. Some are apprehended and sent to jail for various crimes, but their illness only gets worse behind bars. And, eventually, they are released.
The problems are complex. In the absence of easy solutions, we would rather point the finger of blame. But it does us no good to blame individuals, families, or public servants who genuinely want to find answers. What can we do, together?
DJ Jaffe from Mental Illness Policy.org provides ways we can improve our system of mental health care, especially for those with SMIs. Here are just 10 –
- Listen to These Criminal Justice to Develop Mental Illness Policies. Have meetings with police, sheriffs, DA’s, and mental health court judges without mental health officials in the room and ask them what has to be done. You will get much different response from them than from community mental health providers and advocates who rarely deal with seriously mentally ill (SMI).
- Ensure criminal justice is well-represented on all MH committees as they have the most experience dealing with seriously mentally ill. When talking to mental health officials, talk to those who run hospitals and forensic programs, not just community programs. They too have SMI expertise.
- Ensure funds that are being distributed based on identities (race, gender identification, age, etc.) are serving seriously mentally ill within those sub-populations rather than going to community centers to improve generic mental wellnesss. Put resources against highest the risk populations.
- Robustly implement Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) (See: “Success of AOT”) Put AOT evaluators in jails, prisons, hospitals and shelters. Train mental health hotline operators, hospitals, mental health program employees, prosecutors, judges and public defenders about AOT and how to get someone in it.
- Provide families pro-forma forms to get loved ones into AOT Hire or allocate assertive community treatment (ACT) teams to AOT Create the Most Intensive Housing for the Most Seriously Ill Bring back group homes and S.R.Os, both of which had on-site 24/7 support (not just housing vouchers)
- Allocate large percentage of any new housing to SMI, specifically to mental health courts and AOT (it saves money). Support and Expand these Programs that Do Focus on Seriously Mentally Ill Support and expand Clubhouse programs.
- Support and expand Assertive Community Treatment Teams, mobile case managers Implement mental health courts and hire/create more forensic assertive community treatment teams (FACT)
- Hire gap navigators to help SMI over the crack between hospitals/jails and community care. Urge state to enact a ‘gravely-disabled’ and “need for treatment” state civil commitment standards Preserve and Improve Hospitals: Make access to city hospitals easier for the most seriously ill.
- Make greater use of Conditional Discharge from hospital.
- Have city council request state apply for Medicaid IMD waiver and to fight Olmsted Agreements.Read more at: https://mentalillnesspolicy.org/local-mental-illness-policy-ideas.html