Monday, September 21, 2009

Why I'm So Concerned About the Violently Mentally Ill in this Country

In 1968, while working for legal aid, I had a client who told me, "I need to kill Lyndon Johnson because he raped my daughter."

I had him removed by the civil mental health unit and reported to the Secret Service. He called the next day and said, "Do you know where I am? I am in a Mental Institution."

Today, I feel driven to help find solutions to a serious problem in our society.

Now, over 40 years later, hopefully I've gained some wisdom and perspective in the area of mental illness -- not the least of which comes from calling the Bexar County mental health docket for 60 months. (We see the mentally ill today in our Probate Court as well, usually in our guardianship proceedings.)

Perhaps my personal involvement in cases dealing with the mentally ill has given me more impetus to take action.

I feel driven now to try and contribute as best I can towards finding solutions to problems I see in how our society deals with its mentally ill citizens. Particularly so, after reading things like the July 2009 murder here in San Antonio of a 3 1/2 week old newborn baby boy by his mother, who decapitated him with a steak knife and then skinned and gutted him. The mother also reportedly ate some of the baby's toes and part of his brain.

The decapitation of a newborn by his mother here in San Antonio gained worldwide media coverage.

This local story gained international media coverage. The issue of the mother's mental illness received small mention as the gory elements of the event took most of the word count; nevertheless, we do know that Otty Sanchez had a history of mental illness, and told law enforcement that she was hearing voices: the devil made her kill her little boy.

The reality is a "Revolving Door" without a workable treatment plan.

Here's the reality: if a mentally ill individual in this county is actually taken into care involuntarily, Bexar County is good about quickly admitting an individual needing treatment. However, that admittance isn't long: currently, the process is merely a "revolving door" that quickly releases the individual back into the community without a workable treatment plan.

The failure to identify, segregate, and treat the violently mentally ill is the most tragic flaw in our system. It is the chief part of my frustration as a Judge with more than 25 years of experience serving the bench.

I am passionate about doing something to help find a solution here.

Why? Because all too often, the untreated, violently mentally ill precipitate true tragedy, in sometimes horrific circumstances. And, although only 20% of violent crime is committed by mentally ill individuals, one untreated, violent mentally ill person truly can destroy lives and even change world history (e.g., assassination attempts of Pope John Paul; President Reagan; John Lennon; Robert Kennedy; and the catalyst for World War II, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand).

We can no longer avoid use of the word "violent" because of a fear of stigmatization.

Many advocacy groups abhor the word "violent" because it tends to stigmatize all mental illness. Still, there is a fraction of mentally ill patients who are best described that way: violent. It is my opinion that it is in their best interests -- as well as our community's -- that the violently mentally ill be identified, adequately treated, and adequately medicated.

What about the cost? Heck. Right now, one violent mentally ill patient can cost up to $1.5 million to treat over a lifetime if continuously rotated through hospitals.

Our current system of dealing with the mentally ill is not acceptable.

Our current system of laws in dealing with this reality is not acceptable. Judges have no discretion over whether to admit or to decline the release of a patient. Currently, psychiatrists control everything in this area. And while violent offenses themselves are commonly reported, the fact that these offenses are committed by the mentally ill isn't. Why not? Violent offenses by the mentally ill come under the protection of certain state and federal privacy laws.

I'll be working on many fronts - and reporting about things on this blog.

I'll be writing more -- and asking others to provide their opinions and insights -- here on this blog, on a regular basis. I'll also be working in other areas to find answers to this serious and real problem that impacts not just our community, but our nation as a whole. Periodically, I'll provide updates here regarding all that I'm doing.

I'm not alone -- Judge Yvonne Rodriguez takes a stand today.

And, I will look for -- and support -- others who share my concern, such as Judge Yvonne Rodriguez of El Paso County's Probate Court No. One (1).

Judge Rodriguez wrote an excellent article for the El Paso Times today on this issue, where she concludes by writing, "I for one am ready to take a stand."

As am I.

-- Judge Tom Rickhoff