The story of the mentally ill man who killed the gardener at the Alaska Zoo is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking for both the victim and the perp because it should never have happened. And neither person can really be held responsible when it was our system of caring for the mentally ill that allowed the murder to occur.
The young man accused of doing the killing is mentally ill. His family knew this. They knew he could be violent. They tried everything to help him. To read their story of bouncing from one government agency to another without ever getting the help they needed for their ill family member is the kind of tragic tale that is all too familiar to those of us who have worked with these families.
I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but here in Alaska, our mental health system is beyond sucky. It’s positively criminal. It should go to the same place it keeps sending the mentally ill – jail! Because that’s our system’s answer to mental illness even if no crime has been committed and even if the only problem is untreated mental illness.
The story you will hear from every family in Alaska trying to cope with a mentally ill member is the same – API either is too full to admit them or admits them and discharges them with a vial of medicine and little to no aftercare plan. Or they seek counseling and outpatient programs to keep their mentally ill member in a positive atmosphere of socialization only to find that these programs have waiting lists that are years long. They find a place for their family member to live only to have it blow up in their faces because there is no support available to help people with mental illness learn how to cope with living on their own and taking their meds regularly.
Mentally ill people frequently refuse to take their meds so relapses are constant. And when API is full – which is more often than not given it is too small for the population it is supposed to serve and too understaffed and badly administered to do anything but warehouse people until they can bus them to Brother Francis – the overflow of mentally ill people are sent to jail or emergency rooms that are only minimally equipped to handle them.
If these mentally ill people had cancer or heart disease or emphysema, we would be horrified at the thought of just throwing up our hands in surrender at the idea of trying to help them. But that’s exactly what we do with the mentally ill. We throw our hands up in despair because there seems to be no effective treatment available. And sadly, in Alaska at least, that’s very, very true. There is no effective treatment available because every treatment program is stretched beyond its limit in trying to serve this difficult population.
So when we are all exhausted by our efforts, what do we do? We send these people to jail. And so now our jails have become the mental health institutions we thought we’d emptied out decades ago. Turns out we emptied out the Bedlams of the country only to march its inmates directly onto the streets and from there to jail. And you know what jail doesn’t have? Mental health services commensurate to the amount of mental illness present in its facility. So these people languish in a prison for no crime other than being ill. And they get abused and commit suicide because they see no other way out of their pain and because most jails aren’t fit to handle them or offer them anything near the level of services they require.
So while you are enjoying your happy holidays, take a moment to remember those families who wish they could have a happy holiday but who, instead, will be spending it walking through a series of locked doors to spend an hour or so at an uncomfortable table in a big room trying to pretend to holiday cheer inside the prison that holds their ill member.