Thank You, Detective
Fairfax County Police Detective Vicky O. Armel, who was murdered Monday during a shooting rampage by a troubled teenager, had helped people with severe mental illnesses. I know because she helped my son.
Four years ago, I rushed my college-age son to a Fairfax Hospital emergency room only to be turned away. Although Mike was delusional and had been hospitalized twice before for treatment of bipolar disorder, a doctor said he was not sick enough -- yet. Mike thought pills were poison, and Virginia's restrictive commitment statutes prohibit doctors from treating a person with a mental illness against his will unless he poses an "imminent danger" to himself or others. I was told to bring my son back after he hurt himself or me.
Forty-eight hours later, Mike broke into a stranger's house to take a bubble bath. The homeowners, who were away for the weekend, pressed charges, and Detective Armel was assigned to the case.
Because I had been rebuffed at the hospital, I was outraged that my son was now being punished for a crime that easily could have been prevented. Detective Armel sympathized. She personally took my son through booking and arranged for Mike to be released without being held in jail. This enabled me to whisk him back into a treatment program that, by this time, he had entered voluntarily.
Later, when his case came before a judge, the owners of the house that he had vandalized objected to a plea bargain that our attorney had negotiated with prosecutors. The state had been willing to let Mike plead guilty to two misdemeanors as long as he remained in treatment. But the victims wanted him to plead guilty to at least one felony, which would have marked him for life. Once again, Detective Armel came to our aid. She persuaded the homeowners to give us time to come up with an alternative sentence. In the end, Mike was not branded a felon, the homeowners were placated and my son spent twice as long in a community treatment program as prosecutors had originally sought. The community was better served and my son got the help he needed, largely because Detective Armel had cared enough to intercede.
I have spent the past three years investigating our national mental health system as a reporter. What I found is that police officers such as Detective Armel -- not doctors and therapists -- are now on the front lines when it comes to dealing with those who have mental disorders. Our mental health system is so deeply flawed that it is extremely difficult for people who are ill to get help. Instead they are being arrested for crimes they commit while they are psychotic. This is why jails and prisons have become our new asylums.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that 300,000 inmates in jails and prisons take medications for severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. An additional 500,000 are on probation. Some 700,000 pass through the criminal court system each year. The largest mental facility in America is not a hospital; it is the Los Angeles County jail.
Data from the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center confirm this week's grisly headline. People with mental illnesses kill law enforcement officers at a rate 5.5 times greater than the rest of the population. People with severe disorders are also killed by police in justifiable homicides at a rate nearly four times higher than others.
Severe mental illnesses are chemical imbalances that affect how nerves send and receive messages inside the brain. Like the heart, brains can become sick. Eighty percent of mental illnesses can be successfully treated. There was no family history, no inkling of what was ahead in my son's case. He did nothing to become mentally ill. Detective Armel and I discussed this.
When I heard a female detective had been murdered Monday, I thought about my friend. We'd kept in touch. News reports the next morning confirmed my fear.
A good police officer, loving wife and mother of two children is dead. Her murder was preventable. Her killer should have gotten treatment. Their deaths should serve as a wake-up call. How many more police officers will be murdered; how many young men and women with untreated mental disorders must die, before we reform a disgraceful mental health system that fails to treat the sick and protect the innocent?
The writer is a former Post reporter. His book, "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness," was released this month.