I believe we are our brother’s keepers. I don’t think this just because I am a Christian, but because of the socio-economic ramification of not taking care of those less able to care for themselves. This has been recently brought home in a tragedy right here in my own community.
On September 2, 2008 I had just returned home from a long weekend with my family when I received a call from my sister asking if I was o.k. because of the shootings. I assured her I was alright even though I didn’t know what she was talking about. Turning on the evening news I learned that a gunman had started on a rampage at about 2 p.m. that ended with six people dead and several wounded. The gun chase on the freeway ended with the shooter driving into the parking lot of the County jail. Among those killed were a 40 year-old female Sheriff’s deputy, two construction workers, a woman just coming home from work, and a man who just happened to be on the freeway when the shooter drove by, chased by the state patrol.
On September 3, I returned to work to find that the man who did the shooting was a schizophrenic with a history of drug abuse and difficulty with anger management. He had been jailed a short time before and was scheduled for a psychiatric evaluation. I also learned that 13 days earlier he had spent the night in the homeless shelter I manage. He only spent one night because his ranting anger scared the other men so much we asked him to leave.
Driving to work on September 4, I wondered if there were something my employees and I could have done differently that would have avoided this tragedy. But I knew the answer. I had been on record for several years that I felt our mental health system were so broken we were just waiting for a tragedy to happen. In the last few years the number of mentally ill we served in the shelter had drastically increased. Also, the severity of illness in those people had increased. In addition, the ability to help the severely mentally ill had decreased due to decreased funding. Therapy was no longer an option. The most we could hope for is that the client had the right kind of Medicaid so that they could at least receive medication and case management and that they were willing to accept the help.
In the last 5 years we have had to turn more and more mentally ill out on the street because they did not want medication or treatment and the behaviors associated with their illness made them incompatible with our program. Some just had the wrong kind of medical coupon, or were covered by Medicare instead of Medicaid. And those we turned away often ended in jail, because of their behavior. In our county 1/3 of the prisoners in jail are mentally ill.
What does that say about our society? The family of the shooter had been trying to get him into treatment for years. But our laws preserving individual rights state that a person who cannot legally stand trial for a crime because of their mental state still had the right to refuse treatment. We claim that it is their right.
We complain about these people eating up our taxes. And yet it is more expensive to run a jail than it is to run a mental institution. We closed our state hospitals, but are busily building more jails and prisons, in part to cover the needs of jailing the mentally ill at a higher cost. This practice is neither cost effective, efficient, nor humane.
We complain about the high cost of medical care. In my community the emergency rooms are clogged with low-income households with no Medical insurance or only Medicaid and the mentally ill who have no other treatment option. My staff has often taken clients professing to be suicidal to the E.R. Many have waited up to six hours to be seen, only to be turned away because of lack of bed space in the in-patient facility.
A friend who is a medical technician for the graveyard shift at the emergency room tells me that they have had to house up to six mental patients overnight because there is no appropriate bed space in the entire state. This takes up most of their bed space so that those truly in need of emergency medical attention have to wait.
So, yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I believe for our communities to be safer, healthier places to live we must go back to a society that takes care of its own. Plato said that for a democracy to work there had to be a balance between society’s responsibility to the individual and the individual’s responsibility to society.
I believe we have become obsessed with the rights of the individual and have forgotten to look at the greater good. As my brother’s keeper I will continue to work to convince my neighbors and friends that paying a few more in taxes that are used to serve the most helpless with housing, treatment and medical coverage will make my community a better place to live. I believe it is the responsibility of each and every person in the community to work together to build the world in which we would like to live: a place where neighbors know us and will be there in a time of need.