My family’s experience explains why mental health reform has to be part of the solution to mass shootings | Mark O’Keefe

April 7, 2021 6:30 am

BOULDER, CO – MARCH 22: Healthcare workers walk out of a King Sooper’s Grocery store after a gunman opened fire on March 22, 2021 in Boulder, Colorado. Dozens of police responded to the afternoon shooting in which at least one witness described three people who appeared to be wounded, according to published reports. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images))

The  March 22 mass shooting at a Boulder, Colo., grocery store that left 10 people dead has prompted renewed calls for outlawing assault rifles and strengthening background checks for those purchasing firearms.

While such action is needed, society must also make massive improvements in treating mental health illnesses.

The Secret Service’ National Threat Assessment Center released a report stating that in 2018, 91 people were killed and 107 more were injured as a result of 27 violent mass shootings. The report noted that two-thirds of those who carried out the shootings had “experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks.”

So, it was almost predictable that the man charged in the grocery store shootings, Ahmad Alissa, 21, had some mental illness.

Friends and family members said Alissa was “anti-social” and told stories about how he was paranoid and prone to fits of anger. According to the Colorado Sun, police arrested Alissa in 2017 for assaulting a classmate, punching him in the head several times.

Despite the suspect’s apparent history of mental illness and his arrest record, he was able to easily purchase a Ruger AR-556 pistol just six days before the mass shooting.

In his initial court appearance, Alissa’s attorney said he’s being held in jail without bail to “fully assess (his) mental illness.”

The history of the nation’s mental health system has been one of gross underfunding and neglect. There was a time when those with mental health illnesses were locked away in huge hospitals with little chance of ever recovering.

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The government eventually emptied the warehouse, somewhat in the name of compassion. But the overriding factor was reducing the enormous costs needed to operate the facilities.

The focus was supposed to be on smaller hospitals in community settings where patients could live relatively normal lives with occasional checkups and consultations.

However, due to funding concerns, that plan was never fully developed.

The problem is that there aren’t enough beds in the country for all those who have a mental illness. Compounding the problem is that many mental health patients don’t think they have a problem and refuse to take prescribed medications.

There’s also a terrible stigma concerning mental illness. No one wants to admit to having a mental health problem. Even worse, no family members want to acknowledge that one of their kin has a mental health problem.

It all adds up to huge problems for families as they seek help for a loved one with a mental health issue.

I know because my family tried and failed for years to get my older brother John into treatment.

He was a nice guy, generally liked by everyone who knew him. He worked for a long time as an orderly in a community mental health center. However, he never went to college and couldn’t advance his career as many other orderlies did.

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Eventually, he quit and took on several other low-paying jobs. However, he started having problems with his bosses and co-workers. He didn’t last long in these jobs, often quitting before being fired.

He began alienating long-time friends and family members, borrowing money, and then refusing to repay his debts. He also became belligerent in public, getting into arguments with anyone who crossed him, which he had never done previously. Not a big guy; we knew his life could be in danger if he picked the wrong fight.

The family tried to have an intervention, but it was impossible. He just argued and ranted for hours. Finally, we had the police come by, and they took him to the local mental health hospital.

He was to stay there for at least ten days. We were hoping he would be hospitalized for at least a month to get his illness under control.

However, within a week, a counselor told me that John was doing better and was on his way home. I begged him to keep John longer, but the counselor explained that beds for patients were at a premium, and as soon as a patient showed any signs of improvement, hospital officials sent home. He added that a person had to either hurt someone or themselves before being held for longer than ten days.

I talked to a psychologist I knew and asked him what we could do. He said he could get my brother into another center to receive the long-term care he needed.

However, several days later, the psychologist said that the center’s workers thought John was over his problems and was coming home. It turned out that John knew how to work the system because of his time as an orderly.

We worried that John was a smoker and liked to stay up late at night. We feared that he would fall asleep while smoking, lighting the house and himself on fire.

He did fall asleep one night, and the cigarette burned some curtains. However, he woke up in time and was able to call the fire department, which came quickly and doused the fire before it could get started.

An ambulance took John to a local hospital as a precautionary measure. It was there that a doctor diagnosed John with dementia and sent him to a county facility for those suffering from such diseases.

He still lives there. Luckily, he’s on medication, and he’s mellowed out. He doesn’t argue or fight with anyone. He lives mainly in the past, but he recognizes everyone and seems to be generally content with his lot in life.

The incidents happened about five years ago, so our mental health system may have improved since then. But problems remain as recent mass shootings show.

And while taking the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill who are dangerous would be a good start, actually helping those people deal with their problems would be the best course of action.

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.