Please carve out a few minutes and listen to these powerful, articulate advocates discuss the most overlooked social and moral blight of our time.
. . . After being shamed . . .
. . . Yet the Texas deputy attorney general’s ignorance about mental illness and his slurring of Simone Biles tells us all we need to know about how much America still needs to learn, and care, about “crazy people.” Especially including powerful people in our criminal-justice system. Which is one hell of a lot of learning and caring. Meantime, more shame on you, college-educated and privileged and complacent Aaron Reitz.
At age 15, in 1998, Kip Kinkel gunned down his parents and two school classmates and wounded twenty-five more people at a school in Oregon. Today, serving a life sentence, Kinkel has broken his long silence. Will his insights penetrate the fog of ignorance and indifference toward serious mental illness? It would be pretty to think so.
I was transfixed when I opened up the Huffington Post on June 13 and found the story that I attach below. I had mostly forgotten about Kip Kinkel; but I had built the first chapter-draft of No One Cares About Crazy People around his psychotic murder-spree of twenty-three years ago, near the dawn of our present mass-murder era. More specifically, I’d built it around the coverage of that spree on a 2000 edition of PBS’s Frontline.
I eventually discarded that draft in favor of a new beginning. I realized that starting my book with a description of such an atrocity would risk reinforcing the myth that serious mental illness is synonymous with violence. Yet I kept the draft in my files. That draft also is attached.
A lot has happened in the world of mental illness over those twenty-three years, by no means all of it good. Yet to re-read the HuffPost story–centered on interviews with Kinkel over several months–is to be reminded how primitive public perceptions of schizophrenia remained near the turn of this century.
One year after Kinkel’s rampage, teen-agers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered fifteen people, including themselves, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
I listened to news accounts of Columbine on the radio of a rental car in my home town of Hannibal, Missouri, where I had returned to gather material on a pair of cold-blooded killings by teen-aged boys for my book, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore. Several commentators attributed the Colorado murders to the fact that Harris and Klebold . . . wore trenchcoats. Two years after Columbine, I published a piece in The Atlantic about the Zantop murders in New Hampshire. Two adolescent boys from a small town in the northern part of the state knocked on the door of a beloved Dartmouth academic couple in nearby Etna, whom they did not know, and stabbed both to death. In none of these stories, including my own, were the terms “schizophrenia,” “psychosis, or “serious mental illness” mentioned. Those who do not remember the past . . . https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kip-kinkel-is-ready-to-speak_n_60abd623e4b0a2568315c62d
Another slaughter of a mentally ill Black man as he fought for breath and screamed for life, this time in a North Carolina jail, at the hands of men with uniforms and badges. And tasers and pepper spray.
I am beyond sick of this. A couple of weeks ago I reached out to another centrally connected American political family, struggling once again to offer a concise, yet comprehensive, yet concise, yet comprehensive, yet . . . you get the picture . . . compendium of what minimally needs to be done to clear out the massive pain and injustice and obstinate ignorance that has kept “crazy people” enshrouded for, you know, like totally forever. Once again I drew on the recommendations of leading advocates in the crusade, and psychiatric professionals, and . . . and I’ll be candid: not a murmur in reply.
There’s never a murmur in reply.
I don’t think that substantial reform of mental healthcare is ever going to occur in the United States.
Psychotic killers? Just dump them in Bedlam Asylum, circa 1337.
Charles H. “Chuck” Ramsey is a retired law-enforcement professional of unusual distinction. At 71, he has won praise for his service as the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, as chief of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, and as a young officer in the Chicago police department. In 2017 he joined CNN as a commentator, where he has earned acclaim as a blunt and fearless truthteller.
All of which makes it especially painful to report that on Tuesday, Commissioner Ramsey deepened a grievous gulf of ignorance in America’s concept of mental illness. He opined in an on-air discussion that it was “totally unacceptable” for Al Aliwi Alissa Ahmad, the suspect in Monday’s massacre of ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, to have gone and done that. No excuse for it! And no forgiveness!
Ramsey made his declaration in an interview with the CNN news host Brooke Baldwin. Here is what he said, in full, on the topic of “forgiveness.”
“I mean, I feel no empathy for this guy at all, so forgive me [sic] for that, but I just absolutely don’t. No, no forgiveness needed. There is no excuse to go and kill people. There are many people who suffer from mental illness. They don’t do this kind of thing. I mean, that’s just—it’s just totally unacceptable. So, I don’t go for it. Not for a second.”Charles Ramsey
The cluelessness, the beside-the-pointedness, of this little tirade are—well, they are totally unacceptable. As was the glazed reaction of Brooke Baldwin, the “Peabody Award finalist” who did not bother herself with a follow-up question such as—oh—“Commissioner Ramsey, would you give us your definition of ‘mental illness’?” Or, “Why do you think that some psychotic people ‘do this thing’ while others, many others, don’t?”
Baldwin, by the way, opened the show by confiding to her fans that she would soon vamoose to promote her new book about “women unlocking their collective power.” A grateful nation holds its breath.
Do I sound peevish? Very well, I sound peevish. Clarity and precision are essential in discussion of mental illness, and clarity/precision were exactly what neither Ramsey nor Baldwin provided their viewers in this soiree. Their careless self-absorption is typical for much of what passes for media and political wisdom in the wake of an atrocity such as Boulder. And Atlanta. And Springfield, Missouri. And Midland, and Odessa, and . . .
What am I getting at? I’m getting at this: both the pontificating Ramsey and the passive Baldwin seemed content to agree that killing people is a very bad thing to do, just a totally unacceptable thing, and shame on the wussies and sob-sisters who would garland the killer in forgiveness. Killing while mentally ill? Boo hoo. Full stop.
Here are some generally accepted facts, simple to understand: facts that would reduce fatuous and inept declarations by public figures and combat the toxic, ingrained superstition that “mentally ill” equates to “monster in need of chains”:
Fact One: The seriously mentally ill (schizophrenia sufferers and others with chronic brain diseases) are statistically no more prone to violence than the general population.
Fact Two: “Forgiveness” or its absence is irrelevant in the cases of psychotic killers. Their affliction has robbed them of impulse control and any grasp of moral responsibility. They’re not “bad.” They’re mad.
Fact Three: There is a remedy, or a partial remedy: Professional treatment. Professional treatment (diagnosis, a medication regime, and ongoing therapy, commenced as soon as possible after psychotic symptoms appear) can stabilize the chronically disordered mind and greatly reduce the impulse to harm oneself or others.
Fact Four: Contrary to a destructive myth just now making the rounds, the evidence that Al Aliwi Alissa Ahmad was able to plot his rampage is not proof that he was sane, and therefore not entitled to supervised hospital care instead of criminal incarceration. Insanity is not a form of stupidity. People in psychosis are often ingenious in tossing their medications, covering up their symptoms, and plotting their lethal agendas. Thus, proof of insanity remains an uphill battle in the courts. In Colorado law as in other states, “Every defendant is presumed sane. The defendant carries the burden of introducing evidence of insanity. Once such evidence is introduced, the burden is on the prosecution to prove sanity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
(I am in debt, for the insights above and several others, in part to the pre-eminent California advocates C.J. Hanson and her sister Linda Privatte.)
Fact Five: Despite massive efforts, America remains mired in mental-illness illiteracy. Few people like to think about it, much less learn about it. The consequences—to public health, to those caught in the criminal-justice system, to families, and to the national treasure—are enormous. If someone at the pinnacle of law enforcement—a Charles H. Ramsey—can publicly demonize a killer ensnared in psychosis, just imagine the destructive ignorance throughout the echelons below him.
The country needs to be educated in mental illness. Its leaders and spokespeople need to educate themselves.
The mothers of mentally ill children exist in a special Hell-Within-a-Hell.
I can attest that this is true for many fathers as well. Yet evidence from many sources shows us that it is the mothers who suffer the most. Sadly, they often struggle alone, as many of their husbands withdraw from the the horrors and the responsibilitiers of coping with such a calamity.
My friend, the psychologist Lotte Weaver, understands this. Lotte and her husband, the wonderful singer-songwriter Ray Weaver, are the parents of an afflicted daughter, Savannah. The three of them remain a tightly bonded family unit.
Lotte and Ray have shepherded Savannah through a precarious but successful stabilization. Lotte has turned her energies and her formidable intellect to mental-health advocacy. Her latest project, an online workshop for “for mothers of sensitive and stricken children,” as she phrases it, will go online March 8–International Women’s Day.
I strongly recommend it for all mothers of such precious children. Lotte’s own mission statement, below, expresses her mission with more eloquence than I can muster.
Will you step up as the standard-bearer for the mentally ill?
Full disclosure: I have struggled with this blog post for days: post it or throw it away? Revise it one more time so that it reads as Beltway-savvy, or put on my Mister Smith hat and hope it will ignite a 1939 Hollywood moment? Decide to not intrude into the life-choices of an honorable private woman who made it clear recently that she wants to remain private, or say the hell with it and make the intrusion anyway?
Hell with it. Here goes:
On August 23rd of last year, America lost one of the two or three greatest champions of mental healthcare reform since Dorothea Dix. The vast sub-nation of the afflicted, their families, and their ardent yet scattered and over-burdened advocates is seeking a replacement: someone who can help unify this nationwide archipelago of sufferers into a single movement with a coherent voice.
I believe that Ashley Biden, the new President’s daughter, is the person most graced by fate to advance our mission. And I will tell you why: in addition to her experience and expertise in mental health issues, Ms. Biden would embody an influential link to policymakers that the afflicted and their caretakers have yearned for roughly since the founding of the Bedlam Asylum in 1377.
I can already hear the screams of “nepotism!” from the President’s political foes. (At the same time, I’m mindful that some of the most stalwart friends of the mentally ill have been Republicans.)
As Elizabeth Warren used to say, I have a plan for that: make Ms. Biden an unpaid White House staff advisor specializing in the interests of the mentally ill.
(Ashley, is there anything else I can do to enhance your life before I sign off??)
Let me give a thumbnail sketch of the man whose death has created such a vacuum:
Dj Jaffe was 65 when cancer took him from us. Most Americans had never heard of him. Yet within the archipelago, he was a superhero. He’d walked away from a cushy career in advertising to take up the cause when his sister-in-law developed schizophrenia. He understood and worked with Congress, the courts, community health centers, and the county jail, having mastered the complexities of schizophrenia and its related chronic predators upon the human brain. In 2011 he founded the indispensable Mental Illness Policy Org., a colossus of links to data, information, helpful sources, and policymakers. He was a co-founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center along with his own personal hero, the pioneering E. Fuller Torrey. His nonprofit book, Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, is the single most comprehensive manual on the subject in our time.
Dj Jaffe’s passing has left an unacceptable void of wisdom, energy, and passion at the center of our efforts to reclaim the grievously broken systems of mental healthcare in America. There are dozens of men and women who would do credit to my late friend’s legacy. And then there is Ashley Biden.
As I say, Ms. Biden has made it clear that she dislikes “the spotlight,” and bravo for that. Yet her role as an advisor to her father, or perhaps as director of a new foundation, need not entail being in the spotlight so much as seizing the spotlight. And turning it around upon a shadow-enshrouded system that to this day abuses insane people with barbaric neglect and cruelty reminiscent of the Middle Ages.
With scattered exceptions, the mental-illness archipelago historically has been starved of government access. And when any level of government intervenes, it usually leaves things worse than they were. (I write this as a believer in active government.)
Think of “deinstitutionalization,” the sixty-year-old policy disaster that set off the national homeless calamity that expands to this day. Think of county jails as our new, dysfunctional mental hospitals. Think of mind-destroying solitary confinement, a useless torture practice that too often serves as a convenient storage-box for possibly prodromal juveniles. Think of un-convicted juveniles, untreated afflicted kids among them, waiting behind bars, often for weeks and months, for their trials. Think of untrained or uncaring police killing psychotic victims on the streets.
The crises and atrocities cited above are known to most people with a passing interest in the squalid fate of “crazy people” in America. The wish-list below will seem arcane to lay readers; yet it is packed with urgent, unaddressed problems that stunt and shorten the lives of the chronically mental ill, spread a widening cone of misery through their families and communities, and diminish the financial—and moral—health of the nation.
I’m indebted for this list to Leslie Carpenter of Iowa City, who with her husband Scott forms a tireless advocacy duo in America. Here it is:
–End the outdated, discriminatory federal rule known as the IMD Exclusion. This will increase the number of acute-care and long-term beds.
–Increase reimbursement rates for mental health professionals, direct care staff and facilities. This will help with recruitment, retention and quality of staff caring for people with serious mental illness (SMI).
–Modify the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) to allow for more reasonable communication with families who are all too often the unpaid caregivers for loved ones with SMI.
–Increase funds for continued research for schizophrenia and related brain disorders.
–Fund and expand Assisted Outpatient Treatment Programs, along with Civil and Criminal Mental Health Courts.
–Expand funding for Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers in every state in the country.
–Stop wasting money on unproductive anti-stigma campaigns and. Use those funds to pay for the treatment of the most seriously ill, and the stigma will go away.
–Stop funding just more housing. Allow HUD subsidized funding for residential care facilities, group homes and facilities all along the continuum of care for people living with SMI and substance use disorders. Funded housing, tied with assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) programs, will allow the housing of people who don’t know they are sick, and keep them in treatment via outpatient civil commitments for treatment.
–Stop shutting down Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) if someone has to be hospitalized for 30 days or more. Shutting down the ability to pay rent is a major cause of homelessness among the chronic mentally ill.
–Create loan forgiveness incentives for mental health professionals practicing in rural locations.
–Fund medical schools to increase enrollment for psychiatrists and other mental health professional programs including nurse practitioners, physician assistants and psychologists.
Every one of these proposals requires intense, coordinated governmental action. As of today, there is no governmental coordinator. Not even Dj Jaffe had such power. This thin and secretly failing hero drew upon his extraordinary passion, his vast self-education in this complex cluster of subjects, and his gift for eloquence in the media, in testimony, and in his book.
The dispossessed mentally ill people among us cry out for a figure to replace Jaffe, and perhaps even surpass his legacy. Given Ashley Biden’s training, intelligence, commitment to the cause of mental health, and principled access to the (recently besmirched) corridors of congressional power, I believe that she could be this figure—a catalyst for reclamation.
We live in a fragile national moment, a moment saturated with promise and with menace. On the hopeful side, I marvel at the brisk accomplishments of President Biden’s first weeks in office, and I hear an old trumpet sounding, and I can almost envision a second New Frontier. On the dark side linger the shock-images and aural bedlam of the Capitol insurrection and the miasma of the impeachment trial, with portents of worse to come. And I wonder whether collective psychosis—madness—is our new pandemic.
It will take every person of good will to steer our future toward the light. Mental illness is just one item in a crushing agenda; yet it looms over us all, a scourge of mostly unfathomed proportions. (How far have some of us drifted into collective psychosis? Is there momentum in this direction?) A voice of informed influence near the apex of our government would be a godsend. The archipelago needs you, Ashley Biden.
The ravages of mental illness continue to flood every corner of society. Coverage of this atrocity has improved in quantity and sophistication in the last quarter-century–but to what end? Policy-makers, law enforcement and public opinion remain largely indifferent to meaningful education and reform. Mis-diagnoses, non-diagnoses, incarceration, hospital indifference, and violent deaths of people in psychosis surge on, gathering speed. And no one is at the wheel.
This strongly observed and written story by Hannah Dreier of The Washington Post throws light into an especially neglected precinct: Poor black families, and the mentally afflicted children within those families. It provides a glimpse of the day-to-day crises of a divorced Black mother, Kelli, and her two sons–one of whom, the 11-year-old Ahav, is diagnosed with schizophrenia.
You may read Dreier’s piece as simply a searing journey into the wilderness of one family’s mental-illness misery, and of the heroic efforts of Kelli to keep Ahav safe. A closer reading reveals a miasma of bureaucratic obstacles, therapeutic failure, option-choking poverty, and the constant dread of trigger-happy law enforcement that imprison tens of thousands of families such as Kelli’s in the rusted chains of our failed mental healthcare system.
Not really. It has quietly infiltrated and normalized aberrant public behavior in our deranged national landscape.
It is now front and center in the streets.
And in the ravings of pre-eminent news personalities.
In the 1960s the breakaway Scottish mystic/psychiatrist R. D. Laing was prominent among many emerging voices proclaiming that mental illness does not exist. His aphorisms such as “Insanity [is] a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world” and “Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through . . . ” made him a charismatic figure among the counter-culture. His work placed him in the company of the greatest denier of them all, Thomas Szasz, whose 1961 book, The Myth of Mental Illness, crippled the status of psychiatry for generations.
In that time, neuroscientists and psychiatrists worked patiently to rebuild the legitimate acceptance of mental illness and its destructive properties. Breakthrough advances in microcomputer technology established, for instance, that schizophrenia is a genuine disease of the human brain, and not just a synonym for “nut job”: it leaves lesions–tiny traces–in the brain; its clusters of flawed genes are genetically inherited and, to date, incurable.
Yet even as science (that fake mumbo-jumbo!) has steadily clarified the properties of mental illness at the top levels of discourse on the subject, its work is being rapidly undermined again where it counts: in the chaotic maw of popular culture, where malign ideology, semi-literacy, and poisonous cynicism threaten to nullify reason. Including reasoning about unreason.
Thus when the ineffable birdbrain Ann Coulter tweet-tweets, as she did on August 27, that she wants the deranged teenaged lethal shooter Kyle Rittenhouse to be her president (above), we may think of her as the hideous drum majorette at the head of a long malign parade, marching directly toward a new Dark Age.
. . . And perhaps more than a year before reviews of the Linden Cameron shooting by Salt Lake City police are completed. (Linden, a 13-year-old victim of Asperger’s syndrome, absorbed eleven bullets from a policeman’s service pistol on the night of Sept. 4, yet survived and remains in serious condition.)
The link below, to the latest update on Linden’s story, discusses this likelihood. The story was reported and written by Heidi Hatch and Mackenzie Ryan of KJZZ television in Salt Lake City.
Months. Perhaps more than a year.
Months? Why months?!
Mundane reasons. Case backlogs. Scant resources to investigate them. That sort of thing. Since January of 2011, the Salt Lake City area has seen one hundred four shootings by police. Of these, only eight have been ruled “unjustified”–a fair microcosm of the national picture. Charges were filed in just three of the eight “unjustified” shootings, Hatch and Ryan report.
All three of those cases were dismissed.
Nine other unreviewed cases are piled on top of Linden Cameron’s.
And so Linden and his mother Golda Barton will wait. And wait. And wait. The state of waiting and its attendant stress, for one bureaucratic reason or another, is familiar to thousands of families trying to safeguard a mentally ill loved one, or to seek justice for that victim.
Below my September 22 blog on Linden’s case, a reader posted: “I will wait to see all the evidence.” I respect this reader’s sense of fairness. Yet we may never “see all the evidence.” That blog included a murky 36-second excerpt of body-cam recording released by the Salt Lake City police department. It shows a wandering pool of harsh light (presumably the camera light) surrounded by darkness. Linden can be glimpsed walking away from the camera before he disappears into the dark. We hear gunshots when the pool of light finds him again, he is writhing on the sidewalk. Then he turns over onto his left side and stops moving. We can hear him say,
“I don’t feel good. Tell Mom I love her.”
The body-cam footage below apparently covers the full length of the police video. It lasts 1 minute 40 seconds, some of the extra length showing police leaving their patrol car and yelling at Linden before the gunfire. It was posted on YouTube by the website RAW.
This footage also shows that Linden broke into a run after walking a few paces. The police pursue him in a 45-second footrace, yelling for him to “Get on the ground.” Then the shots and the boy’s moaning voice as he lies wounded on the sidewalk.
And that’s about it.
So: Linden Cameron and his mother, not to mention the police officers involved, probably will have to wait for up to a year, and maybe longer, before the investigative bureaucracy gets around to this case.
The great 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone is credited with the maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Gladstone should have stuck around.
In a year’s time, pending investigations often lose their initial urgency. Public opinion and news coverage dissipate. The indignation of civic leaders cools. The cop shooting of a mentally ill boy, which initially drew international attention, grows stale in the files. The investigative bodies–in this case, they include an outside police department and the Salt Lake City department as well–tend to lose whatever incentive they may have had to render judgment against their own. The Linden Cameron case becomes something of an abstraction. Besides, it was dark. The camera dances around. Who, really, can say what happened? (Who, really, by this time, cares?)
“I will wait to see all the evidence.” A reasonable and honorable suspension of judgment.
Bring a book of crossword puzzles or something.