I had no idea, on Thursday night, when I posted on my sister Mary Anne, on her struggle with mental illness, and also that of my parents to speak to her dignity, and her needs, that a terrible act of violence would unfold on Friday morning (see that post HERE). And while all the facts are not before us, it would seem that, mental illness, and how we as a society deal with the mentally ill, is central to the tragedy that unfolded in Connecticut.
I want to speak to you, in a personal way, as someone who has experienced in his own family the devastating impact of mental illness. I want to write of the struggle to deal with it in a way that respects the dignity of the mentally ill and also the need to protect the common good.
As for my sister Mary Anne and of her 30 year struggle with mental illness, I wrote last week. She had moments of great lucidity, and peace. But these moments were often punctuated by deep troubles, wherein she heard “the voices” who instructed her to do terrible things, acts of violence, acts that harmed her and others. In these, “dark moments” she perpetrated acts of violence, breaking into stores, engaging, not only in shoplifting, but also, it attempted armed robbery, breaking and entering, and other, almost pointless destruction of property. Many times she turned on herself, several times slashing her wrists, taking overdoses, trying to jump to her death. Once, she accosted my mother with a long carving knife. Another time, she successfully stabbed my mother, wounding her seriously in the middle of the night, while she slept. My sister also, set fires, and would ultimately die in a fire that she kindled.
And yet in all of this, my sister Mary Anne, had many lucid moments, wherein she was gentle, kind, helpful and deeply concerned for the well-being of all of us. She was a beautiful human being who struggled mightily to keep her mental health, in the face of a horrible affliction that often overtook her. She loved God, and like all of us, sought his face and the serenity and healing that only God can give.
In all of this, my parents too were engaged in a great battle. It was not a battle that was not easily defined. It was a battle that sought to protect my sisters rights, and her dignity. But it was also a battle that sought to protect the common good, which my parents rightly thought was threatened by my sister’s instability.
Early in my sister’s struggle with mental illness, she was confined to the rather protected environment of mental hospitals. That said, men of these places were not pleasant. And my parents, expended many personal resources, and money to ensure that my sister was in the best of possible environments. But honestly, the protected environment of a mental hospital was best for her, that is where she an others were best protected.
Somewhere, in the late 1970s, as I recall, the ACLU, and other interest groups, sued the federal government, claiming that many were being unjustly detained in mental hospitals. Having lost a series of suits, the government largely emptied the mental hospitals, resulting in a great exodus of the seriously mentally ill into our streets.
As most of you know, the “homelessness” problem, in our large cities, was deeply rooted in mental illness. Who of us have encountered homeless persons have seen the depths of their pain and understand that they struggle with mental illness, and also addiction. I know the mental hospitals prior to 1975 were not wonderful, or well-run, but I have grave concerns that we overreacted and severed many people from the necessary, and protected environment that they most needed.
My sister, was among those who were ushered out of mental hospitals, and placed into group homes settings and other less protected environments. Ultimately, this led to the death of my sister, and of great pain for many others.
In the years following her dismissal from the mental hospital system, my sister bounced back and forth through many different group homes. She often ran off, and in her difficult moments and became involved in many incidents that harmed her and others.
In all this, my parents engaged in an ongoing battle, to have her reconsidered for commitment to the more protected environment of the secured mental hospital. Repeatedly, they were denied. Frankly, with the jurisprudence of the time, these mental health officials had little to go on. The emphasis was on the rights of the mentally ill to be emancipated, and their own safety, and the safety of the community seemed to be quite secondary.
Having proved incapable of stably navigating the group home system my sister was NOT placed back into the mental hospital system, but in fact, was further disconnected from mental health services. She was assigned “Section 8 housing,” and merely given access to daycare facilities.
My parents protested this low level of care, indicating her history of violence and other antisocial acts when she went into crisis. But my sister was a 30-year-old woman, and the state mental health officials indicated that she had rights. And while my parents concerned were legitimate, the officials indicated there was little they could do.
Having been assigned a Section 8 apartment, my sister would be dead within one month. Sure enough, without careful supervision she went off her medicines. She began to act out, breaking into a local convenience store, and committing various other acts of vandalism. The neighbors spoke of her as “strange” and of standing out on her porch late at night speaking out an singing odd songs. Having been arrested on several occasions she was returned to her apartment.
My parents requested her immediate committal, but she protested, and the police indicated that court procedures would have to be followed. A final brief conference with my parents, the police, and my sister ended with a very unreasonable solution: an unstable and very angry young woman was left alone in her own apartment, insisting that police and parents leave her alone. In all this there was no legal recourse. And so my parents, and the police left.
With in one hour, a fire erupted in my sister’s apartment, a fire the investigators had be set, and in which she tragically died. Mary Anne had a history of setting fires when she heard the voices. Twenty-five other families were left without a home that night and many lives were altered.
Please understand, mental illness is a complicated. It remains true that the mentally ill, and mentally incompetent do not lose their rights or dignity. But among those rights and dignities are the need for them to be protected. Many of them struggle with very fragile mental health. The distinction between lucidity and insanity are very fine lines. Simply missing a dose of medicine, or lacking a basic support structure can send them over the edge.
I still weep for my sister, even now as I write this. She was a good woman, a woman who loved God, a woman who loved us, but a woman who struggled mightily to keep her sanity. She was a woman who heard voices, who was a assailed with demonic oppression. She wanted to be well. She deserved better than to die in an apartment alone, surrounded by flames. She died weeping. Many others also suffered that night, those who lost their homes, and my parents who lost their only daughter. Yes, so many suffered.
Could this have been prevented? I think so.
As we grieve the loss of so many in Connecticut, we do not know all the details. But it seems increasingly clear that Adam, who committed these acts, was a deeply troubled young man. It is perhaps easy for us to think of him only as “a monster.” But perhaps the reality is more complex than that. I will not say more of the Connecticut case, we do not know the details. I ask only your prayers for those who have suffered, including Adam and his family.
Among the things that we need to consider as we assess this terrible tragedy, is how we deal with the mentally ill. In saying this, I do not deny that there are legitimate concerns related to guns, violent video games, and other deep wounds in our families, including divorce and a culture gone awry. But among the reflections should be a consideration of mental illness, and the mentally ill. They are not unambiguously evil people. They, like my sister, struggle to find moments of sanity in a mental landscape often assailed by voices, and innumerable psychopathic episodes that disconnect them chronically or episodically from that precious thing we call reality, and good mental health.
People suffer from, and even die from mental illness daily. Finding a way to balance their civil rights, and their need to live in contact with others, must be balanced with the common good, with the need for all of us to live safely. I know, that we did not get the balance right with my sister, Mary Anne. She deserved better than to die alone in an apartment surrounded by flames. And the twenty-five other families, who lost a home that night, also deserved better.
We need to pray and work consistently for a proper solutions for the mentally ill, a solution that respects their individual rights, needs, and dignity and balances these with the needs of the common good, and wider society. May all who suffer from mental illness, and all who suffer with the mentally ill, be blessed encouraged by our God who alone can wipe every tear from our eyes.
Here is a video on the pain of loss: