A right to mental illness?

By E. Fuller Torrey and Mary Zdanowicz
New York Post

New York’s death toll is mounting because of untreated mental illness.  Psychotic individuals who are not taking medication that is needed to control the symptoms of their schizophrenia or manic-depressive disorder are both victims and perpetrators. Finally, however, Gov. Pataki, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other leaders of the state Legislature are working together to pass a partial solution to this problem.

The latest victim was Rodney Mason, a psychotic man who was shot after stabbing a police officer on Tuesday. At least four other individuals suffering from severe mental illness have been shot by New York police in recent months. Paul Maxwell, standing naked in the street, was killed when he tried to swing a bat at a police officer. Ronald Kessler, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was killed when he used a hammer to attack an officer. Kevin Cerbelli was killed after he entered a Queens police station and stabbed an officer with a screwdriver. Charles Stevens was shot by police on the Long Island railroad after he brandished a sword.  Individuals with untreated severe mental illness have become even more prominent as perpetrators of homicides. When Andrew Goldstein, who was not being treated for his schizophrenia, pushed Kendra Webdale to her death under a subway train in January, he became merely the most recent in a long line of seriously mentally ill New Yorkers who have committed senseless homicides: Colin Ferguson, Reuben Harris, Mary Ventura, Juan Gonzalez, Kevin McKiever, Michael Vernon, Steven Smith, Christopher Battiste, Jorge Delgado, etc. They were all severely mentally ill and not being treated for their mental illness. Nationally, a Department of Justice study indicates that there are nearly one thousand similar homicides in the United States each year.

Homicides are not the entire story. They do not include the approximately three thousand New Yorkers who are in the city jails on any given day because of crimes committed due to their untreated mental illness. They do not include the additional thousands living on the streets, including such luminaries as Joyce Brown (“Billie Boggs”) and Larry Hogue (“the Wild Man of 96th St.”). The Rikers Island city jail is now de facto the state’s largest inpatient psychiatric facility. The streets and subways are now de facto the state’s largest outpatient psychiatric facility.

A partial solution to these continuing tragedies was discussed in Albany last week. Kendra’s Law, named after Kendra Webdale whose death in the subway mobilized action, would permit the outpatient commitment for seriously mentally ill individuals, like Andrew Goldstein, who refuse to take the medication they need to stay well. They refuse because their illness impairs their thinking and they do not think that they are sick. They have impaired awareness of their illness. Kendra’s Law would permit Andrew Goldstein to live in the community only insofar as he was taking his medication. If he did not, he could be involuntarily rehospitalized. Such laws exist in the majority of states and studies have shown them to be very effective.

Kendra’s Law has had remarkable bipartisan support in Albany, from Gov. Pataki to Attorney General Spitzer to Speaker Silver. The mothers of Kendra Webdale and Charles Stevens have publicly urged the passage of this proposed law; they know that other mother’s children’s lives and minds will be lost without it. It is not a com- plete answer – New York’s disconnected outpatient services and inadequate housing for mentally ill individuals must still be addressed. But it is an important step in correcting a state system under the Office of Mental Health that merely floats from tragedy to tragedy.

Opposition to Kendra’s Law is coming, predictably, from some civil libertarians who do not understand that making rational choices assumes a normal functioning brain. This is the same group that defended Joyce Brown’s right to live and defecate on New York’s streets. There must of course be checks and balances to insure that Kendra’s Law is not abused.

But for individuals whose brain is impaired by severe mental illness, defending their right to remain mentally ill is mindless.

Kendra’s Law represents a partial solution to a problem that is not just Republican or Democratic, and not just for the governor, attorney general, Assembly or Senate. It represents a partial solution for a problem for all New Yorkers. It will not bring Kendra Webdale back to life, but it will prevent many similar tragedies in the future.

New York Post

May 28, 1999

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1999 New York Post. All rights reserved.