The mass shooting in Michigan compels us to look again at psychosis, mayhem, and the enormous difficulties in warding off this witch’s brew.
The Crumbley family of Oxford, Michigan, and the victims of Ethan Crumbley’s early semiautomatic Christmas present purchased by Dad on the well named Black Friday, have been on my mind for the past week. I wish they would go away, and I wish It would go away. But they won’t go away, and It won’t go away. “It” being nightmarish gun violence in America.
In writing about annihilations such as this one, I would normally (strange word, that—“normally”)—I would normally jump astride one of my hobbyhorses as a mental-health reform advocate: I would renew my call for early intervention—diagnosing—as a means of thwarting people in the throes of psychosis before they act out their fantasies.
After Oxford and all its complexities, I realize that this “solution” is not enough. It may not even be attainable. Yet we have to try. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.
Instead of dashing off on the hobbyhorse, I have spent the week studying the case and renewing my layman’s education in mental illness. Here’s what has popped up:
It seems clear that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School went nearly as far down the road as humanly possible in reacting to the red alerts in Ethan Crumbley’s pre-shooting behavior. Nearly. On the day before the gunfire that left four students dead and seven wounded, a teacher spotted the 15-year-old Ethan looking at iPhone images of bullets in class. The next morning—D-Day—a teacher noticed Ethan at work on some deeply ominous sketches and writings: “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “Blood everywhere,” and “my life is useless,” and “the world is dead.” The sketches depicted a bullet and a bullet-riddled body.
The teacher reported these to a school counselor. Rushed to the counselor’s office, Ethan dismissed the materials as plans for a video game he was working on. (Police later found two videos that the 15-year-old had recorded on the Monday night before the slaughter. They showed him predicting what he was to do the following day.) The superintendent of schools called James and Jennifer Crumbley, Ethan’s now-infamous parents. In the 90 minutes it took them to arrive, school staff members observed and talked to Ethan as he sat in the office. His Christmas present lay unsuspected in his backpack. On arrival, Crumbleys were told that Ethan needed counseling. James and Jennifer shrugged it off and left. The school administration let the boy return to class. It was better, they figured, than letting him go home to an empty house.
At around 1 p.m., Ethan Crumbley began visiting classrooms.
I wrote above that the teachers and staff at Oxford High School had done “nearly” everything possible to prevent a young person in psychosis from a murderous rampage. What else might they have done? Here we enter the realm of the conjectural, and clarity is essential.
Those staff members acted—at least on the early evidence—with exceptional initiative and responsibility. Should they have gone further and called police? Perhaps. Michigan law permits protective custody and transport to a hospital by police if an officer observes behavior that suggests “a serious danger to self or others.” Would Ethan have sat and waited for the police to arrive at the school, and then thoughtfully exhibited his psychotic symptoms? Not likely, even should the officers have been trained to handle the situation, far from a foregone conclusion. As for these parents giving their permission . . . well . . .
The great, recently deceased advocate D. J. Jaffe best summed up this perverse tic of social policy:
“The law says we can’t do anything until after the psychotic victim becomes dangerous to self or others. As ludicrous as it sounds, the law requires dangerous behavior rather than prevents it.”
So there we are. And here we don’t go again.
Related to the subject of psychosis and mayhem, my week of re-education led me to an essay that merits reading by anyone interested in this issue. It has prompted me to re-think some facile assumptions I’ve let myself slip into. More on it tomorrow.
“Rikers houses more than 4,800 detainees on a given day, a majority of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Most do not commit violent acts, and a significant number struggle with mental illness.”
At age 15, in 1998, Kip Kinkel gunned down his parents and two school classmates and wounded twenty-five more people at a school in Oregon. Today, serving a life sentence, Kinkel has broken his long silence. Will his insights penetrate the fog of ignorance and indifference toward serious mental illness? It would be pretty to think so.
I was transfixed when I opened up the Huffington Post on June 13 and found the story that I attach below. I had mostly forgotten about Kip Kinkel; but I had built the first chapter-draft of No One Cares About Crazy Peoplearound his psychotic murder-spree of twenty-three years ago, near the dawn of our present mass-murder era. More specifically, I’d built it around the coverage of that spree on a 2000 edition of PBS’s Frontline.
I eventually discarded that draft in favor of a new beginning. I realized that starting my book with a description of such an atrocity would risk reinforcing the myth that serious mental illness is synonymous with violence. Yet I kept the draft in my files. That draft also is attached.
A lot has happened in the world of mental illness over those twenty-three years, by no means all of it good. Yet to re-read the HuffPost story–centered on interviews with Kinkel over several months–is to be reminded how primitive public perceptions of schizophrenia remained near the turn of this century.
One year after Kinkel’s rampage, teen-agers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold slaughtered fifteen people, including themselves, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
I listened to news accounts of Columbine on the radio of a rental car in my home town of Hannibal, Missouri, where I had returned to gather material on a pair of cold-blooded killings by teen-aged boys for my book, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore. Several commentators attributed the Colorado murders to the fact that Harris and Klebold . . . wore trenchcoats. Two years after Columbine, I published a piece in The Atlantic about the Zantop murders in New Hampshire. Two adolescent boys from a small town in the northern part of the state knocked on the door of a beloved Dartmouth academic couple in nearby Etna, whom they did not know, and stabbed both to death. In none of these stories, including my own, were the terms “schizophrenia,” “psychosis, or “serious mental illness” mentioned. Those who do not remember the past . . . https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kip-kinkel-is-ready-to-speak_n_60abd623e4b0a2568315c62d
Another slaughter of a mentally ill Black man as he fought for breath and screamed for life, this time in a North Carolina jail, at the hands of men with uniforms and badges. And tasers and pepper spray.
I am beyond sick of this. A couple of weeks ago I reached out to another centrally connected American political family, struggling once again to offer a concise, yet comprehensive, yet concise, yet comprehensive, yet . . . you get the picture . . . compendium of what minimally needs to be done to clear out the massive pain and injustice and obstinate ignorance that has kept “crazy people” enshrouded for, you know, like totally forever. Once again I drew on the recommendations of leading advocates in the crusade, and psychiatric professionals, and . . . and I’ll be candid: not a murmur in reply.
There’s never a murmur in reply.
I don’t think that substantial reform of mental healthcare is ever going to occur in the United States.
Psychotic killers? Just dump them in Bedlam Asylum, circa 1337.
Charles H. “Chuck” Ramsey is a retired law-enforcement professional of unusual distinction. At 71, he has won praise for his service as the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, as chief of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, and as a young officer in the Chicago police department. In 2017 he joined CNN as a commentator, where he has earned acclaim as a blunt and fearless truthteller.
All of which makes it especially painful to report that on Tuesday, Commissioner Ramsey deepened a grievous gulf of ignorance in America’s concept of mental illness. He opined in an on-air discussion that it was “totally unacceptable” for Al Aliwi Alissa Ahmad, the suspect in Monday’s massacre of ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, to have gone and done that. No excuse for it! And no forgiveness!
Ramsey made his declaration in an interview with the CNN news host Brooke Baldwin. Here is what he said, in full, on the topic of “forgiveness.”
“I mean, I feel no empathy for this guy at all, so forgive me [sic] for that, but I just absolutely don’t. No, no forgiveness needed. There is no excuse to go and kill people. There are many people who suffer from mental illness. They don’t do this kind of thing. I mean, that’s just—it’s just totally unacceptable. So, I don’t go for it. Not for a second.”
The cluelessness, the beside-the-pointedness, of this little tirade are—well, they are totally unacceptable. As was the glazed reaction of Brooke Baldwin, the “Peabody Award finalist” who did not bother herself with a follow-up question such as—oh—“Commissioner Ramsey, would you give us your definition of ‘mental illness’?” Or, “Why do you think that some psychotic people ‘do this thing’ while others, many others, don’t?”
Baldwin, by the way, opened the show by confiding to her fans that she would soon vamoose to promote her new book about “women unlocking their collective power.” A grateful nation holds its breath.
Do I sound peevish? Very well, I sound peevish. Clarity and precision are essential in discussion of mental illness, and clarity/precision were exactly what neither Ramsey nor Baldwin provided their viewers in this soiree. Their careless self-absorption is typical for much of what passes for media and political wisdom in the wake of an atrocity such as Boulder. And Atlanta. And Springfield, Missouri. And Midland, and Odessa, and . . .
What am I getting at? I’m getting at this: both the pontificating Ramsey and the passive Baldwin seemed content to agree that killing people is a very bad thing to do, just a totally unacceptable thing, and shame on the wussies and sob-sisters who would garland the killer in forgiveness. Killing while mentally ill? Boo hoo. Full stop.
Here are some generally accepted facts, simple to understand: facts that would reduce fatuous and inept declarations by public figures and combat the toxic, ingrained superstition that “mentally ill” equates to “monster in need of chains”:
Fact One: The seriously mentally ill (schizophrenia sufferers and others with chronic brain diseases) are statistically no more prone to violence than the general population.
Fact Two: “Forgiveness” or its absence is irrelevant in the cases of psychotic killers. Their affliction has robbed them of impulse control and any grasp of moral responsibility. They’re not “bad.” They’re mad.
Fact Three: There is a remedy, or a partial remedy: Professional treatment. Professional treatment (diagnosis, a medication regime, and ongoing therapy, commenced as soon as possible after psychotic symptoms appear) can stabilize the chronically disordered mind and greatly reduce the impulse to harm oneself or others.
Fact Four: Contrary to a destructive myth just now making the rounds, the evidence that Al Aliwi Alissa Ahmad was able to plot his rampage is not proof that he was sane, and therefore not entitled to supervised hospital care instead of criminal incarceration. Insanity is not a form of stupidity. People in psychosis are often ingenious in tossing their medications, covering up their symptoms, and plotting their lethal agendas. Thus, proof of insanity remains an uphill battle in the courts. In Colorado law as in other states, “Every defendant is presumed sane. The defendant carries the burden of introducing evidence of insanity. Once such evidence is introduced, the burden is on the prosecution to prove sanity beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fact Five: Despite massive efforts, America remains mired in mental-illness illiteracy. Few people like to think about it, much less learn about it. The consequences—to public health, to those caught in the criminal-justice system, to families, and to the national treasure—are enormous. If someone at the pinnacle of law enforcement—a Charles H. Ramsey—can publicly demonize a killer ensnared in psychosis, just imagine the destructive ignorance throughout the echelons below him.
The country needs to be educated in mental illness. Its leaders and spokespeople need to educate themselves.
With restrained contempt, Hesse ticks off a partial list of the inanities, evasions, and pseudo-diagnoses that clot the accounts of this and other mass-shooting atrocities: The shooter was having a bad day. The shooter’s family was shocked. The shooter was a churchgoer. The shooter . . .
I read and I nodded. And yet I kept wondering: will she get there, will she get there, will she get there . . . ?
And then in the thirteenth paragraph she got there:
“I would, however, love to hear about mental health. Let’s have that conversation. Let’s have symposiums and colloquiums and serious studies and interventions — my God, let’s talk about mental health. But I do not need to hear about it from the politicians who, as soon as they are given the opportunity, slash community health budgets, show more fealty to insurance companies than their constituents and refuse to address the poverty and other underlying conditions that can make it difficult or impossible for Americans to seek quality mental health care.”
There it is. The Great Unspoken. Mental illness as a possible trigger of violent crime.
It’s hardly as though serious mental illness—psychosis—is a taboo subject per se. Books, news outlets, and advocacy groups are tackling the topic with increasing frequency and candor, and that amounts to a societal breakthrough. Yet roadblocks remain in place to deflect critical areas of understanding. Some are understandable—and still misplaced.
No one wants to sanitize an act of lethal brutality by explaining it away as (merely) the result of a chronic brain disease. One of my closest friends, an intelligent and gifted journalist, emailed me just last week:
“I have a mixed reaction to coverage of the Atlanta shooter. Is he mentally ill? Maybe… but it’s still a hate crime, and clearly did target Asian women. And that can’t get lost right now and rationalized as ‘just’ the deranged action of a single man. Not with the rampant hate that Trump and his ilk have unbottled. He’s a religious nut job, but whether he has [a serious mental illness] . . . hard to say.”
Of course it’s hard to say. It’s impossible to say from a distance, and irresponsible to say without proof. And “proof” in matters of mental illness is elusive, to put it mildly.
But here is the distinction that I believe Monica Hesse is making, and that more journalists and experts should be making: To raise the question of psychosis in a violent crime is not the same as to assert it.
I have scanned hundreds of internet sites in the week since Long, 21, murdered eight people, including six Asian women, at three massage spas in Atlanta. The stories repeatedly cite a handful of possible motives: it was a hate crime. It was part of the rising rate of hate crimes against Asians. Asian women. Robert Long was having girlfriend problems. Long was having a bad day (this from the sheriff in charge).
Still, the only times the possibility of mental illness came up, the theoretical context was “sex addiction,” Long’s own explanation. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not list “hypersexuality” as a mental disease.) At 21, Long was in the prime demographic for the onset of schizophrenia, a genetic disease apart from other complaints of the mind. Yet I have seen no speculation that Long might have been psychotic (the most dangerous symptom of the disease). Far from “rationalizing” his lethal actions as psychotic, the stories I’ve read do not mention psychosis at all. Why not?
Misplaced ethical restraint? Most responsible people in the media, like my friend, are reluctant to imply that this brain disorder and violence are bound together. And indeed they are not bound together. The recently departed Dj Jaffe, a statesman of mental-illness advocacy and policy research, specified again and again that it was the untreated and unmedicated victims of madness who posed danger to others—and themselves. Jaffe’s message scarcely seems to have penetrated beyond the “archipelago” of the suffering and (some of) their caretakers.
Long’s parents stated that their son did not take medications; nor, despite increasingly erratic behavior, was he diagnosed.
Please mark me well. I am not declaring that Robert Aaron Long is schizophrenic. I am not suggesting that this and the other theories are mutually exclusive.
What I am declaring and suggesting is this: severe mental illness remains at once a dreaded and a formless presence in American thought. Dreaded because it is a malady on a par with cancer. And formless because (as with cancer) stigma has retarded education, policymaking, and enlightened criminal-justice reform in regard to it.
Monica Hesse’s words remain as succinct and powerful as anything I have contributed here:
“Let’s have symposiums and colloquiums and serious studies and interventions — my God, let’s talk about mental health.” And: “But I do not need to hear about it from the politicians who, as soon as they are given the opportunity, slash community health budgets, show more fealty to insurance companies than their constituents and refuse to address the poverty and other underlying conditions that can make it difficult or impossible for Americans to seek quality mental health care.”
. . . And perhaps more than a year before reviews of the Linden Cameron shooting by Salt Lake City police are completed. (Linden, a 13-year-old victim of Asperger’s syndrome, absorbed eleven bullets from a policeman’s service pistol on the night of Sept. 4, yet survived and remains in serious condition.)
The link below, to the latest update on Linden’s story, discusses this likelihood. The story was reported and written by Heidi Hatch and Mackenzie Ryan of KJZZ television in Salt Lake City.
Mundane reasons. Case backlogs. Scant resources to investigate them. That sort of thing. Since January of 2011, the Salt Lake City area has seen one hundred four shootings by police. Of these, only eight have been ruled “unjustified”–a fair microcosm of the national picture. Charges were filed in just three of the eight “unjustified” shootings, Hatch and Ryan report.
All three of those cases were dismissed.
Nine other unreviewed cases are piled on top of Linden Cameron’s.
And so Linden and his mother Golda Barton will wait. And wait. And wait. The state of waiting and its attendant stress, for one bureaucratic reason or another, is familiar to thousands of families trying to safeguard a mentally ill loved one, or to seek justice for that victim.
Below my September 22 blog on Linden’s case, a reader posted: “I will wait to see all the evidence.” I respect this reader’s sense of fairness. Yet we may never “see all the evidence.” That blog included a murky 36-second excerpt of body-cam recording released by the Salt Lake City police department. It shows a wandering pool of harsh light (presumably the camera light) surrounded by darkness. Linden can be glimpsed walking away from the camera before he disappears into the dark. We hear gunshots when the pool of light finds him again, he is writhing on the sidewalk. Then he turns over onto his left side and stops moving. We can hear him say,
“I don’t feel good. Tell Mom I love her.”
The body-cam footage below apparently covers the full length of the police video. It lasts 1 minute 40 seconds, some of the extra length showing police leaving their patrol car and yelling at Linden before the gunfire. It was posted on YouTube by the website RAW.
This footage also shows that Linden broke into a run after walking a few paces. The police pursue him in a 45-second footrace, yelling for him to “Get on the ground.” Then the shots and the boy’s moaning voice as he lies wounded on the sidewalk.
And that’s about it.
So: Linden Cameron and his mother, not to mention the police officers involved, probably will have to wait for up to a year, and maybe longer, before the investigative bureaucracy gets around to this case.
The great 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone is credited with the maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Gladstone should have stuck around.
In a year’s time, pending investigations often lose their initial urgency. Public opinion and news coverage dissipate. The indignation of civic leaders cools. The cop shooting of a mentally ill boy, which initially drew international attention, grows stale in the files. The investigative bodies–in this case, they include an outside police department and the Salt Lake City department as well–tend to lose whatever incentive they may have had to render judgment against their own. The Linden Cameron case becomes something of an abstraction. Besides, it was dark. The camera dances around. Who, really, can say what happened? (Who, really, by this time, cares?)
“I will wait to see all the evidence.” A reasonable and honorable suspension of judgment.
Below is a link to a body-cam video of the Salt Lake City police shooting of the autistic 13-year-old Linden Cameron on the night of September 4. The footage was released on Monday, Sept. 21.
Linden’s mother, Golda Barton, had made the mistake of calling the police to get the boy, who was in a psychotic state, to a hospital. Linden survived the tender attentions of the police and remains in serious condition.
I counted eleven shots–eleven!–from the policeman’s service revolver, a count also reported in local news coverage.
It is dark, and so you cannot see Linden being shot. But as the clip ends, you can hear him say: “I don’t feel good. Tell Mom I love her.”