December 4, 2009

Early intervention in mental illness prevents tragedies

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carol_smithwebTragedies like the recent police shootings by Maurice Clemmons, a man with questionable mental stability and a violent history, raise anew the debate about what we can do differently to prevent these incidents from happening.

One piece that seems missing is intervention early on when signs of mental illness first present – even in childhood.

Last week, Disability Rights Washington filed a class-action lawsuit against the state charging that the state fails to provide early home and community-based services that would keep kids with mental illness out of institutional care.

Judy Lightfoot, writing in Crosscut, quotes psychiatrist Eric Trupin of the University of Washington, who says, “We know so much more about effective mental health interventions with children and families than we did 20 years ago. It’s a shame we’re so slow to implement what we now know: that psychosocial interventions which include intensive skills-based work with families lead to better outcomes than earlier approaches ever did.”

Over and over, families have said that they are unable to get help for troubled kids when they need it. And often, by the time they do get help, the situation has grown far worse.

We will never know Clemmons’ true mental state. He was shot and killed by police after a massive man hunt.

The Seattle Times notes that Clemmons’ only formal diagnosis was a “brief psychotic episode” noted after he reported hallucinations last spring. Otherwise, mental health evaluators found him competent to face his earlier charges, and labeled his erratic behavior “stress.”

However, he also had a history of violence at an early age, which automatically puts him at higher risk for escalating violence, and also should have been a red flag to look for other signs of mental disorders.

Who knows what signs of early mental illness might have been overlooked, or missed, or gone untreated? We’ll never know that either.

Studies show that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and function well with varying degrees of treatment and support.

But, evidence also shows that the majority of people in prison today have some form of mental illness. Ignoring the problems early on is asking for trouble.

Carol Smith

One thought on “Early intervention in mental illness prevents tragedies

  1. In regard to Maurice Clemmons and Zamora and so many more, the real story is Washington State is not spending the money necessary to take care of our mentally ill citizens:

    Just as with when Gregoire was ringing her hands and gritting her teeth over the deaths that occurred when Zamora did not receive treatment, in the case of Maurice Clemmons she has once again blamed everyone but the people who are truly at fault: her, past governors, this Legislature, past legislatures – for not funding mental health care. The fact is that Maurice Clemmons’ family knew he was clearly mentally ill, and they reported it to at least Pierce County at least as early as May 2009 [more than six (6) months ago]. In September of 2008, I wrote the following to The Seattle Times’ James Vesely, and it still applies today (more so than ever):

    “The role of the governor (the current one, last one, and next one, et al.), and the Washington State Legislature is to take care of its people rather than shying away from needed programs and necessary funding resultant to cowardice to tackle tough issues which may not be popular with all of the general public.

    “What happened in Skagit County … reminded me so much of the woman (Mary Jane Rivas) who in the midst of the Washington State Legislature’s 2006 SSB 6308 Reentry Task Force blew through Seattle at 80 m.p.h. broad-siding and killing an SPD officer (Joselito Barber). The story that should have been reported by Claudia Rowe (PI), “The Seattle Times,” and all media was that a woman (Rivas) went to prison as an addict, was not rehabilitated, and thus released back to the streets exactly as she went in: an addict (and whether anyone likes the thought or not, an addict in need of help). I’m long past being polite, or even attempting to fake it, so I am compelled to ask, ‘What the —- else should we have expected!’ In regard to Zamora, he was mentally ill – for crying out loud! And, he was known to be mentally ill!! So, again, what the —- should we have expected!!!

    “The fact is that until our various governors and the Washington State Legislature find the courage to enact and fund necessary programs to help our people, Washington’s people, there will be no end to instances like what happened to Officer Barber in August 2006 and with Zamora and all six of his victims last week. This State (MUST) get to the point where it is concerned more with helping the disenfranchised and its people in need than with the Sonics and Key Arena and Steve Ballmer’s $300 million proposal, etc., etc., and on and on, ad infinitum….

    “… when I read last year’s PI article about the governor appointing a panel to review what the DOC did, and did not do, in regard to Zamora and having key people be chosen from WASPC (Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs) and the prosecutors’ association, I was enraged: First, what about a representative from WACDL (Washington Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys)? Second, and importantly, what about mental health professionals? And, third, why not a panel to investigate the governor(s), past and present, and Washington State Legislature for not creating and funding programs, including education and mental health, to take care of those in our communities who are so obviously in need? What more could Zamora and his family have done to make their needs known? Buy flashing neon signs they did not have the money for and stand in front of your office or the governor’s mansion or the Leg building? … Washington must – absolutely must – begin to care for its own. Bill and Melinda Gates and Paul Allen and Ballmer and McCaw and Bezos, et al., are not the only people residing in this State. In fact, there are thousands and thousands of uneducated and mentally ill and addicted and homeless on our streets – the same ones many Seattleites cross 3rd and 4th avenues and Pike and Pine to avoid – and they must, absolutely must, be helped. And, until they are helped, we will not have safe communities; rather, we will continue to suffer the losses of police officers such a Joselito Barber and sheriffs’ deputies such as Anne Jackson and civilians too numerous to count….

    “Until we have necessary programs that are adequately funded we will not have safe communities…. The fact is that until Washington and its political leaders stop playing political games with such obviously serious issues we will continue to suffer serious acts of crime – and, again, we will not have safe communities….

    “… when governors and members of the Legislature fail to enact and fund the programs that are necessary for Washingtonians to be safe in their communities, whose lives do they affect: our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and friends and neighbors and loved ones. In the final analysis, while (Washington’s) report card shows our political leaders to be failing us all profoundly that report card is just a predictor – with the final report card on Washington’s political leaders being an overall lack of community safety and ultimately deaths such as those lost last week in Skagit County and before that Joselito Barber and before and since them….”

    Ari Kohn
    Post-Prison Education Program