Monday, December 19, 2011

Death in Lagrange

     Last week, a tragic shootout occurred in this small, rural township, which left a man dead, and a sheriff deputy wounded. In its wake, there appears to be many unanswered questions; specifically, how could an officer checking on the welfare of a man in the midst of a possible mental health crisis, have it end so tragically? Hopefully, the answers will be forthcoming soon!
     Though I am first, and foremost an advocate for those suffering with mental illness, I also have strong ties to the police; who I refer to as the new and best mental health workers! I am the first one to defend them after they have violent interactions with individuals in crisis, and rarely do I find fault with their work. However, I am reserving judgment in this case until more facts become available. The reasons for these reservations will soon become clear.
     This incident began when the mother of the person in question, Travis Stidham, called the Lorain County Sheriff’s department, and asked them to check in on him because he was acting strangely. Through newspaper accounts, it appears that the officers did attempt to make contact with this man, but he did not respond. They did see him through his windows moving around in his home, but apparently, he had barricaded himself in that house.  
    It appears, at this time that the deputies set up a perimeter around his house, and tried once again, to make contact with him. At some point, Stidham did exit the house, and the officers at the scene put a spotlight on him. According to an eyewitness, he then began shooting at the deputies who returned fire. At first report, it was an “officer down” situation, and he was pursued as if he did, in fact, shoot the officer.  A short time later, with a police helicopter hovering overhead, the individual committed suicide.
     Over the course of the next several days, it was determined that the officer wounded, Deputy Charles Crausaz, was actually wounded by friendly fire, not by Stidham. That does NOT diminish the situation in any way. In the course of a gunfight, things like that happen, and neither officer should be overly scrutinized for it. However, more precautions and training may be called for to avoid a repeat. The officer, who fired the errant shot, should again, not face undue criticism as this was a tense situation, and it occurred at night. We should all be grateful that the officer will recover.
     It is here that the situation becomes murky. Tom Skoch, the editor of the Lorain Morning Journal said it best in his “Our View” column this past Sunday. He said, “The facts known publicly so far do not indicate that Stidham was presenting a threat to anyone outside of his home.”
     The law on when an individual can be committed for treatment is clear, and it says that the individual had to be sure danger to themselves or others. It is evident that he was acting strange, but that did not make him a threat. Yes, he also owned a gun, but again, that is not illegal. Though there is no conclusive proof that this man had psychiatric issues, there is ample evidence to suggest it was part of the equation. Namely, his mother telling the dispatcher that her son was off his medication, a claim, echoed by his neighbors.  
     A large question looms, and that is, were the first officers on the scene to make contact trained in Crisis intervention (CIT)?
      This program, developed in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1980’s, has been designed to train officers to deal with people in crisis; a plausible scenario with Travis Stidham. It was implemented to avoid violent confrontations, and the empirical evidence of its success is overwhelming. I have been involved with this training program for over six years now, and it has gained widespread acceptance, though it was not available in Lorain County till about 2001.
     The methodology in CIT is to make people aware that a mental health crisis is not a criminal offence; it is a “Medical Emergency”, and should be treated as such. In essence, during most CIT calls, the officers should also have an ambulance standing by, in the event that they realize the need to have the patient admitted for treatment.
     As of this time, it does not appear that this protocol was followed. It is as if this was being treated as a criminal case, almost right from the very beginning. With this, they may have lost the ability to de-escalate a situation before it became a firefight. The sheriff’s department may have a compelling reason for that, and hopefully, they will provide a credible explanation.
     Keeping in line with this, could the spotlight being shined on Stidhamn have been misconstrued by him as some form of aggression? If he was delusional, could he have interpreted this to be a gunshot? This question will be difficult to answer, even though the police has an “eyewitness” to the event; that type of evidence is routinely dismissed by investigators as somewhat unreliable.
     I must concede that, if in fact, Stidham, did have a mental health issue; he has to share some responsibility. As one who has dealt with mental illness it is not the fault of the person that they got sick, but, it becomes their responsibility to get treatment, stay in it, and get better!
     The Elyria police are going to be the ones that are handling the investigation, and I do have a high level of confidence in them. That was not always the case, but they have made many positive changes in their department, so now I believe we will see an accurate accounting as to what happened. Hopefully, the sheriff’s department will take any criticism as constructive, and make the necessary changes. Most importantly, in the future, what steps can the department do to avoid a repeat of this type of tragedy?
     I must add one more thing. I find it odd that the sheriff’s department is being lauded for being upfront about this friendly fire incident, and the resulting tragedy. I will not join the chorus of accolades for those declarations. Why praise someone for simply telling the truth?
     I look forward to questions and comments and will respond to all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to the wonderful world of mental illness!

     “We’re all crazy, I just got caught”; was a slogan I first heard from the actress Delta Burke when I met her many years ago. This woman, who fights major depression and an eating disorder, was able to make light out of a powerful but misunderstood subject, mental illness. With this blog we are going to examine just what this illness is all about, what it takes to defeat it and the challenges that recovery entails. To best illustrate all the dynamics of this disorder, I will use many of my own personal experiences in life as an example. This blog is one of many avenues that I have and will continue to utilize to bring social awareness to the plight of those afflicted and the ones close to them.
     It does not matter which of the numbers people go with. It is known that about one in five or six Americans suffer from mental illness. Those add up to over fifty million people and it is said that less than a third are actually seeking treatment. Those are staggering numbers! Many of these individuals have faced rejection in nearly every aspect of their lives, have faced denial of essential treatment and in the past been the recipient of some form of police brutality. It is as if it becomes a sin just to be diagnosed with one of these “socially unacceptable diseases” that those afflicted will create their own personal underground to hide in shame. I know because ten years ago, I joined their ranks. However, I decided to make a difference!
     Times did change because people within the mental health system truly do believe that recovery is possible and that individuals can create a tremendous life for themselves. Step one in overcoming is accepting that a person has a chronic illness and has to make it their responsibility to get better. That is the essence of recovery, acceptance and personal responsibility.  In my case, I decided that I would not be part of the problem, but rather I wanted to become part of the solution. With this blog, I will be giving a step by step overview of “The good, bad and ugly” of the system itself!
     The “good” of the system would have to be the new mental health workers, the police. In dozens of presentations and classes to about a thousand police officers and cadets throughout Northeastern Ohio, I have found dedication with this profession to actually finding help for individuals afflicted. A far cry from the days that brutality claims were the result of a poor contact between the officers and those afflicted.  I cannot deny that “rogue” departments do still exist; however I would estimate ninety percent of the police departments do exemplary work this field. Because of their efforts and dedication, brutality claims along with violent altercations between those afflicted and the police have been dramatically reduced. This blog will deal with both positives and the negatives within the law enforcement community.
      The “bad” can best be answered by police officers themselves. I hear it all the time and it is, “I bring an individual in crisis to the emergency room after deescalating a tense situation. I spend time with the one afflicted and a couple of hours later, he or she is back on the streets.”  
     The common practice for hospitals who are dealing with a mental health crisis is to give the individual some pills, release them and tell them to seek treatment. This absurd “Treat them and street them” policy ignores the fact that the individual came into the hospital for some real treatment and care, not to be released back and given virtually no opportunity to get better. However, the medical profession seems to dehumanize those with a mental disorder and that makes it a widely accepted policy. It is disappointing to note that the medical community has made little substantive improvement in the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Sadly, it is apparent that many will find examples of regression in care, in spite of a greater knowledge in the science of these disorders.
     The “ugly” part of these disorders is without question, the stigma of being diagnosed with one. I am here to say that it is true, the stigma of mental illness, is many times more painful than the illness itself. It seems to be a given that some supposedly intelligent professionals who claim to be God fearing, will create a moral exclusion to demean and ostracize the mentally ill. I know that first hand as I have suffered that type of indignity.
     There are other areas of the mental health community that will be examined, especially the political climate, which can best be described as toxic.  In time, we will examine the voting record of many of local political leaders, break down their votes and determine the long term impact to the mental health system.
     In many actions, we are all crazy in some idiosyncratic way, and it becomes difficult to differentiate where the boundaries of insanity begin. With awareness and empathy, fewer people will be left in a dungeon of loneliness that is a hallmark of mental illness. With less of a stigma more and more will seek treatment and with that, they can become much more productive members of society. 
     All comments and questions that are posted to this blog will be answered as quickly as possible. I also encourage anyone with an interest in specific topics related to the mental health field to post them as suggestions for possible future subject matter. Thank you for visiting this blog and I look forward to hearing from many of you!!