Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Another Preventable Tragedy

From the Oregonian:
The death of Andrew Hanlon is a story that's all too familiar. Once again, a psychotic person doesn't receive adequate care for his mental illness and is killed by a police officer. Sadly, Hanlon's death was preventable.

Hanlon, a 20-year-old Irishman living near his sister in Silverton, had schizophrenia, a disabling disease of the brain that affects more than 3 million people in the U.S. Untreated, individuals with schizophrenia act bizarrely, are delusional, cannot function in society and are at high risk of committing suicide.

Fortunately, we now have highly effective treatments for schizophrenia. Hanlon had been taking medications for his illness, but he had stopped using them. That's not uncommon for those with schizophrenia, but it's less likely to occur if the individual is receiving ongoing outpatient care by a mental health professional.

After stopping his medication, Hanlon predictably became psychotic again. His family sought help, but help for mental illness is hard to come by in our community. In desperation, the family called 9-1-1 in April for help. The responding police officer took the appropriate actions -- and should be applauded for how he handled the situation -- and drove Hanlon to a local hospital for evaluation. Since our health care system inadequately funds care for mental illness, it's not surprising that Hanlon did not receive ongoing care for his schizophrenia. His illness remained untreated, and his psychotic behavior continued.

Ultimately, Hanlon met a fate he shares with too many others with mental illness in our community. A Silverton police officer confronted the psychotic young man, who was then shot to death as he reportedly charged the officer.

One is left to wonder whether the police officer, a former fighter and still-active coach in the region's cage-fighting circuit, could have used non-lethal force to subdue the smaller, unarmed young man. Don't misunderstand: My father was a police officer, so I'm sympathetic to the risks that our police officers face every day. I'm fully aware that it's easy for people, from the safety of our homes, to second-guess the instantaneous decisions a police officer has to make on the street. But many of our police officers seem woefully unprepared to deal with people suffering from schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses.

Hanlon should be alive today. His death was preventable. Had he received appropriate treatment, he wouldn't have been pounding on a stranger's door at night and the police wouldn't have been called. If the officer on the scene had been better trained to deal with a mentally ill person, Hanlon wouldn't have been killed.

As a society, we need to recognize that serious mental illnesses -- schizophrenia, bipolar disease and depression -- are diseases of the brain. People suffering from these illnesses need the same level of care that we provide to people with cancer, diabetes and other chronic health problems. And our police need much better training in recognizing psychotic behavior and in the use of nonlethal force in handling the mentally ill.

No comments: