Friday, April 27, 2007

Horrific, but not uncommon

The story of the Bruce family is horrific – even more so because it is NOT uncommon.

William Bruce brutally killed his mother. His father describes the conversation of two worried parents the night before the murder.

"The night before it happened, my wife and I were in bed talking. I said, 'Amy, I can't believe they allow these people out on the streets. Willie should be in a padded cell, heavily sedated. What do we have to wait for? Do we have to wait for him to hurt somebody or kill somebody before they do something?' "

Unlike Cho Seung-Hui, most severely mentally ill individuals who become violent do not select their victims randomly. Multiple studies have confirmed that between 50 and 60 percent of the victims are family members; by contrast, among homicides committed by non–mentally ill individuals, only 16 percent of the victims were family members.

Joe Bruce spoke eloquently about his family’s story last night on Anderson Cooper 360 and on WCSH Channel 6 in Portland, who noted:

Throughout the family's struggle with Willie's schizophrenia, Joe Bruce said he learned a lot of things about Maine's mental health system that upset him. He learned being psychotic is not enough to get someone committed to the hospital. The patient has to be a direct threat to himself or others. He also learned how difficult it is to require someone to take medication while in the hospital. And he discovered Willie could be deemed well enough to go back into the community after just a couple of weeks in the hospital.

In the Bruce case, some of the parallels with the Cho case are eerie – one of which being the attitude of the mental health care providers charged with caring for people who are so ill.

"Recovery from mental illness is possible," wrote the director of the Maine psychiatric hospital where William Bruce was sent for treatment and released. A week later, Bruce stood accused of bludgeoning his mother to death. After Bruce was accused of killing his mother, the hospital director explained why. "In Maine, a client can choose not to be engaged in treatment ... [t]he major issue is when someone does not appear eminently [sic] dangerous and cannot be committed."

In Virginia, a spokeman for the agency that should have helped Cho after he was court-ordered into community treatment said, "The matter of the individual actually following up and going to that appointment is his or her prerogative." He also said that the court order "can't actually be enforced," despite the fact that the law says that upon failure to adhere to the treatment order, the judge can rescind it and order hospitalization.

As one Maine paper wrote after the Bruce tragedy:

We understand the concern for the civil liberties of people with mental illness, but this case shows the greater need for the patients like William Bruce is to keep ahold of them -- not necessarily in institutions -- but within a system that can treat the symptoms that lead to such tragedies.

Treatment laws that require someone to be a danger to themselves – coupled with providers who shirk their duties to those very people who have actually been found to meet those high standards – it all adds up to tragedy.

The wakeup call wasn’t Cho. It has been sounding regularly in communities across the country. It is just that nobody was listening.

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