Friday, June 17, 2011

Budgets, Crime and What Happened to Stephanie

From the New York Times today we have a story entitled, "A Schizophrenic, A Slain Worker, Troubling Questions," a horrible story about a mentally ill man who killed a social worker in his group home. The story highlights the defendant's longstanding history of violence with several assaults in his past. He once fractured his stepfather's skull and his first criminal offense involved slashing and robbing a homeless man. (On another post on this blog Rob wondered why the charges were dismissed in that case; from experience I can tell you it's probably because the victim and only witness was homeless and couldn't be located several months later when the defendant came to trial.) The defendant, Deshawn Chappell, also used drugs while suffering from schizophrenia. Before the murder he reportedly stopped taking his depot neuroleptic and was symptomatic. The news story also suggested that he knew he was committing a crime: he got rid of the body, disposed of the car and changed out of his bloody clothes. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently symptomatic to be found incompetent to stand trial and was committed to a forensic hospital for treatment and restoration. At his competency hearing the victim's family thought that the defendant was malingering his symptoms, while the victim's fiance was distraught enough that he tried to attack Chappell in the courtroom. The point of the Times article appears to be an effort to link the crime to cuts in the Massachusetts mental health budget.

So what do I think about this story? (As Dinah would say, this is a 'Clink' thing.)

About the crime itself I have little to say. There's nothing that out-of-the-ordinary or unusual about this as a forensic case. I have no opinion about his legal sanity since I know nothing other than what's presented in the media (and I've had enough of my own cases covered in the media myself to take what I read with a large grain of salt!). Frankly, these kind of cases happen every day as you could tell by following the Psychiatry and the Law twitter feed.

Why does this story, of all the potential psychotic killer stories, showing up in the New York Times, and why is it showing up now?

Because New York is trying to "beef up" their assisted outpatient treatment law, of course. And the Times has come out in favor of it. They've had other articles in the paper promoting assisted outpatient treatment.

Now, I'm all in favor of advocating for improved mental health services as well as adequate training and reimbursement for well-qualified mental health staff. I just wish they wouldn't feed into the fear and public stereotyping of seriously mentally ill people to do it. That's my first reaction to this piece.

My second reaction is in response to this quote:

"The first time Mr. Chappell secured a state hospital bed — and the treatment that comes with it — was when he ended up behind bars."
And the observation by Chappell's mother:
"In 2007, Mr. Chappell, sentenced to a year in jail but required to serve only three months, ended up at the prison psychiatric hospital. When his mother visited him there, she said, she was heartened to see the effects of an enforced medication regimen. “This was the son I raised,” she said. “He talked about going back to school and getting a college degree.”
I'm going to link back to those quotes the next time I hear somebody comment that "locking people up doesn't do any good." There are some people---fortunately relatively few---who can only be treated in a secure environment because they are just too repetitively assaultive to be treated anywhere else. That's what forensic hospitals and prisons are for.