Mental Illness and Tragic Death: Of Strangers, Friends and Family

Mental Illness and Tragic Death: Of Strangers, Friends and Family

Alfred Olango is dead.

Perhaps he wanted it this way. Reportedly, he had been walking in traffic in a manner that clearly endangered his safety. Reportedly, he spooked the two officers called to the scene by pulling an object from his pocket and pointing it like a gun (Police now say it was an e-cig). There’s a chilling still shot excerpted from a cell phone video that certainly leaves one with the impression that the officers might well have feared for their lives.

And, unlike in the movies, these difficult scenes don’t unfold with a lot of dramatic dialog or seconds of standoff before someone pulls the trigger. Because in these real-world scenes, when that trigger gets pulled, someone is likely to be dead. As one civilian said, “He (the officer) needs to go home that night.”

One of my friends also is dead.  And he probably wanted it this way, too, though the details still are sketchy.

The report I received indicated that he entered a store, handed his identification to a clerk, pulled a gun, walked to the back of the store, and shot himself. That may not be the whole story; there were some reports that more than one shot was heard.

One thing is clear in both cases.

Emotional distress led to tragic death.

In this same week, I was chatting with a friend who recently had been volunteering at a free health clinic. He shared a story about a deeply disturbed young man who came to see them speaking of suicide. When he left the clinic, my friend was deeply troubled, because he knew that a need had gone unmet.

The first of these stories is wrapped in the larger social conversation about race, police and violence. The second, I know, is wrapped in a host of personal difficulties, from a rough upbringing to drugs and gangs to relationship difficulties and loss. The third speaks to our nation’s continuing debate about health care and the particular challenges we face in meeting the mental health needs of all.

I have other stories like these. Service on a jury in a case of murder where the accused (and eventually convicted) was mentally ill and sought help, ultimately in vain. Friends and family members who have battled with mental illness.

I have sympathy for the officers involved in Alfred Olango’s death.  Great emotional distress and/or mental illness gives off “vibes” that make many of us uncomfortable and most of us uncertain about what to do. I have concern that the officer who pulled the trigger may himself face serious emotional challenges in the aftermath of the tragedy; I know that to be a reality, too.

I have great sympathy for Olango’s family . . . and for the friends and family of my friend . . . and for all who are challenged by brokenness in heart or mind, in themselves or someone they love.

I’m just a bit tired of the accumulation of stories.

We seem to have a strange attitude about mental health in this country. Years ago, we shut down the “mental hospitals” that were more like prisons, the ones made infamous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We said it was wrong to deprive people of their freedom simply because they were mentally ill.

We were right about that.

The advent of a host of pharmacological therapies for a range of psychiatric conditions also has transformed the potentials for many, allowing kids to mainstream in school and adults to survive and thrive in their occupations and professions.

But none of these things constitute ultimate cures. Ultimate cures may simply be unattainable.

The necessary ongoing care, including medication, is something recent health care reforms have made more available for many who previously could not afford it. But not for all.

The man I helped convict of manslaughter probably wouldn’t be in prison (and the woman who was his victim wouldn’t be dead) if he had been able to get the medication he needed every day. He was homeless and broke. He couldn’t afford a 30-day supply of the anti-psychotic medication that helped him cope. He could afford a pint of vodka to dull the pain and quiet the voices . . . until they gained control again.

My friend might not have died had mental health counseling and care been more mainstream-acceptable. The young man who left the free clinic, likewise, might be a lot safer today.

And Alfred Olango might still be alive if the officers involved had been more fully trained and supported in dealing with a mental health crisis, if the public safety response to a 911 call like his sister apparently made included someone trained, like a hostage negotiator, in the art of talking a distraught individual off a ledge.

Suicide takes over 40,000 lives every year in this country. And for every suicide, there are 25 attempts . . . a million attempts a year.  And those are only the events officially recognized as such. They exclude the hundreds of thousands of instances of people consciously or subconsciously crossing the threshold from “risky” to “self-destructive” without calling themselves suicidal. Some of these, our brothers and sisters in blue know, put officers in danger and make them unwillingly complicit in a suicide pact.

There is no shame in being overwhelmed by life, distraught from loss, or depressed for no clear reason. When this is our experience, we also need to acknowledge that it isn’t just about “manning” or “womaning” up. Mental illness can strike suddenly or arise slowly over years. Whenever it strikes, just like any other serious illness, it needs to be treated . . . not ignored.

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