On Mental Illness

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I attended the funeral for Dusty Shuck yesterday, and felt out of place. I was an outsider looking in, and that always makes for a little awkwardness.

Regardless, I was glad to have gone. Shuck’s story is one that brings to the forefront so many issues, or would if people cared. Which, in reality, is why her story is also a tragic example of society’s failures.

Yes, the 24-year-old was a victim of a crime, but she was also a victim of a criminal justice and mental health system that deserves a serious overhaul. When reading this Frederick News Post article (which was much better than the one I wrote), you can understand the frustration of a mother who tried to do everything she could for her daughter, but was foiled in every attempt because of poor coordination between agencies in different states.

While Shuck’s story was playing out, the Washington D.C. metro area was rocked when a Fairfax County police detective, Vicky O. Armel, was gunned down outside her station by a mentally-ill teenager. Confined Space and Musement Park have good posts on the subject, and on the ways in which public policy have made incidents like these more likely.

Ultimately, Dusty Shuck was never helped: she came before judges and police, and countless others encountered her, and nobody was there to help her. Her mother, Lori Atwood, could do nothing but listen as authorities called to let her know that judges set her daughter free, and that police set her daughter free, even after an Arizona court had ordered Shuck into a Tucson treatment facility.

Simply put, law enforcement personnel are not trained to recognize mental illness, and, unless the individual commits a crime, they won’t hold that person.

As a result, we get a system that works like this:

I have spent the past three years investigating our national mental health system as a reporter. What I found is that police officers such as Detective Armel — not doctors and therapists — are now on the front lines when it comes to dealing with those who have mental disorders. Our mental health system is so deeply flawed that it is extremely difficult for people who are ill to get help. Instead they are being arrested for crimes they commit while they are psychotic. This is why jails and prisons have become our new asylums.

Something needs to snap, we need something to build critical mass. Because this is a situation that will be repeated and repeated, all across the country, until we reform our mental health-care system.

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