Petula Dvorak: Devastating toll of mental illness demands our attention

Petula Dvorak
Columnist January 20

The Broncos, a New Jersey bridge, the polar vortex — these are the things that have us chattering.

But toddlers slashed to death? A veteran who set himself on fire in front of the Capitol?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

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The common thread in these incidents is mental illness.

And when we hear that, there’s the subconscious sigh of relief that the knife-wielding maniac isn’t on the loose slashing strangers and, too often, we leave it alone.

But it won’t stop, and although mental illness isn’t as fun as Bridgegate, its victims are making some very public cries for help.

Maybe we don’t want to talk about it because there is no easy or obvious answer. No tidy slogan or single, streamlined legislation that won’t trample on people’s civil liberties will fix all the chemical imbalances, genetic hard-wiring and traumatic scarring of mental illness.

But one in four Americans — 26.2 percent of the population older than 18 — suffer from a psychological disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The suicide rate is increasing sharply, surpassing car crashes as a cause of death in America. And I seriously doubt that’s because more people are using Bikeshare.

Something is deeply wrong here, and we need to step back, take a look and listen.

Let’s start with this past weekend, when a Germantown mother and another woman played out a horror movie in their townhouse, allegedly killing two toddlers while performing an exorcism. Two other children, ages 5 and 8, were seriously injured in the frenzy.

The mother, Zakieya L. Avery, 28, wasn’t completely off the radar. Her issues had been flagged before. She had received mental health counseling, police said. Avery was also supported by a church group that helped her with groceries, shelter and haircuts.

Just five years ago, a D.C. woman named Banita Jacks, who struggled with mental health and homelessness, was found living with the corpses of her four children, two years after she killed the first one. We aimed to fix city agencies — not mental health care — with that one.

But what if money’s not the problem?

Let’s visit Georgetown this past Sunday, where Le Roi Elliott, 88, was stabbed to death and police arrested his son, Bradford Nelson Elliott, 56.

The son lived with his parents — his mom, 81-year-old Vaughan Elliott, was also slashed in the attack — and police heard from a surviving brother who lives in Loudoun County that there was a long history of mental illness.

Neighbors said the Elliotts were a lovely family with a prestigious Washington history. But among neighbors, they talked about farm tomatoes and world events. Never mental illness.

A similar attack left Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) with a dead child, a scarred face and a mission.

Only two months ago, Deeds was attacked by his son, Gus, 24, who killed himself after the slashing. It happened a few hours after an emergency custody order had expired and before a bed could be found.

Still, Deeds found resistance in the state legislature last week when he proposed extending the standard hold of emergency custody from four or six hours to a full 24 hours.

Virginia has been trying to fix its mental health system for years. Author Pete Earley pointed out in a recent editorial that the state convened its 16th mental health task force this month. Since the Virginia Tech massacre and even before, the state has known and documented what the problems are. There simply aren’t leaders around who will do the work.

Violence is not an inevitable characteristic of mental illness, but it is a pretty loud alarm bell that should have us listening.

We can go back to Sept. 16, when Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and injured three at the Washington Navy Yard because he thought he was being controlled by low-frequency electromagnetic waves.

Less than a month later, Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist from Connecticut who struggled with postpartum depression and psychosis, rammed the gates of the White House with her car, then careened around Washington, her 1-year-old in the back seat, until she was gunned down by police.

The next day, a Vietnam War veteran from New Jersey, John Constantino, saluted the Capitol and self-immolated on the Mall. A family attorney said he had long struggled with psychological issues.

November brought us the Deeds tragedy, and the month ended with a man who killed himself inside the National Museum of the American Indian.

Over the weekend we had the child killings in Germantown and a patricide in Georgetown.

That’s 19 bodies in five months. And we’re not even including the lonely deaths of our young veterans, whose suicide rate recently spiked by 44 percent, or the smaller rampage shooting across the country we now tolerate.

So why is it that we can talk shamelessly about our herniated disks, celiac disease and plantar fasciitis, but depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder are taboo?

The victims of mental illness are crying out to us — loudly, publicly and covered in blood.

This has got to be the year we listen.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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