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About Mental Health

We leave people on the streets who are too ill to care for themselves

I have a different perspective about the July 22 murder at the MacArthur BART Station because I am the mother of a seriously mentally ill young person.

People are rightly terrified and upset by this shocking murder of an African American woman in a public place. They are looking for relief and a solution. But I don’t think executing John Cowell, jailing him for life, or classifying the crime as a hate crime will do anything to relieve people’s fears, make people safer or combat racism.

To me, this murder seems less about racism or BART procedures than about brain illness. I believe this because I have family experience with disabling brain illness, and I know what it does to people.

Evidently Cowell is seriously mentally ill, like my daughter and like my friends’ children. Cowell’s family said he was diagnosed with bipolar illness and schizophrenia, and that he had nowhere to go after being released from the Atascadero State Mental Facility in May because of the lack of mental institutions. That he has been in and out of jail and has not had the proper treatment.

Most people don’t know that many, perhaps most, of our mentally ill children have no place to go.

Serious mental illness is a disease that can be identified and diagnosed and often treated. Nevertheless, the United States, as a rule, since the ’60s, has not treated the seriously mentally ill, or taken care of them, or given them any place to live other than jail.

Very many of the sickest, perhaps half a million nationwide, are in jail or homeless, without any meds or treatment or support. In Alameda County, there are no more than a few hundred beds in locked hospitals — mostly only available for a night or two — and no more than a few hundred beds in licensed board-and-cares (unlocked places where people too sick to live with relatives might find a permanent home).

Most people also probably aren’t aware how totally disabling untreated brain illnesses like schizophrenia and serious bipolar disorder can be. These diseases don’t just take away people’s mental health; they take away people’s ability to make choices and care for themselves. Half of people with schizophrenia and many bipolar people have no idea they are mentally ill.

People with untreated mental illness may have delusions or hallucinations. Because of that, they are often victims of violence by police or by people they antagonize. Or they can be violent themselves; sometimes they kill strangers with whom they have delusional issues, or they kill their own family members or neighbors.

It seems to me that delusions, not the content of the delusions, were the cause of this tragedy. It’s true society is racist, and it’s true African Americans are in danger in public from the police and others, and it’s true our seriously mentally ill children often pick up and amplify the racist, sexist and xenophobic ideas of society.

Nevertheless if they have gotten arrested and hospitalized over and over again, and they have been barred from their own homes, and they been found in need of medication but are not getting any, they almost certainly have a brain illness as well as unacceptable thinking. The details of their thinking, if you had access to them, wouldn’t make sense, e.g., they might say harmless things are dangerous, and dangerous things are harmless; food is poison or methamphetamine is essential to life.

Our children deserve to be kept safe and healthy and kept from being the victims or perpetrators of violence. That we ask them to take care of themselves on the streets is disgraceful.

Alison Monroe is the mom of a young person with schizoaffective disorder.