Bruce Maiman: Families have to take more responsibility for mentally ill

An altercation occurs between a police officer and a civilian. It turns violent. It’s caught on video that goes viral. The rush to judgment begins –excessive force, police brutality. It’s made more toxic because the officer is white and the suspect black. Investigations ensue. Lawsuits follow.

You’re thinking: It’s the California Highway Patrol officer pummeling a homeless woman on the side of the Santa Monica Freeway two weeks ago.

I’m thinking: The West Oakland BART station in November 2009, when an officer’s use of force on a passenger became a national controversy after a rider posted video of the incident. The officer pushed 37-year-old Michael Gibson out of the train, across the platform and into a glass panel, shattering it. Neither man was seriously hurt, yet the viral judgment was already rendered.

But just like 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock on the Southern California freeway, Gibson was mentally ill, suffering from a psychotic break, having failed to take his medication that day.

The Pinnock incident, like so many others before it, raises urgent concerns – the manner in which police deal with people who are mentally ill, and whether they are adequately trained to do so.

There’s a more critical question: Who is responsible when a mentally ill family member has a psychotic break?

Sadly, the Pinnock family quickly retained John Burris, the successful civil rights attorney, just as the Gibson family did. Once his name surfaced and the lawsuit card was played, it sent a very bad message – that the family is not responsible. Really? How did this family member become homeless? Anyone asking the family?

It is a family’s responsibility to monitor any relative with mental illness so that he or she doesn’t have a violent confrontation with either police or the public. Without question, that’s inconvenient, infuriating and expensive, but it has to start with the family. If they can’t deal with it alone, they need to find somebody who can.

Instead, too often, the mentally ill end up in the hospital or the morgue after encountering police who are poorly suited to deal with them. The police are not psychotherapists; they cope as best they can. Then the family sues the officers when they’ve done nothing but try to deal with the person the family has already admitted it couldn’t handle.

Yes, the Pinnock video is horrifying, but any rational person must concede that what we’ve seen isn’t all that took place. So it’s also disappointing that a member of Congress – Los Angeles Democrat Maxine Waters – prematurely called for the officer’s firing. That’s the legislative equivalent of what she’s accused the officer of doing. At least she added that the CHP must thoroughly investigate. Thoroughly investigate before firing someone? What a concept!

But this is also a sad commentary on our own inadequate medical care system. Anyone who has family members struggling with mental illness knows this story all too well. Mental institutions thought to be unfit for human habitation were closed. We said grandiloquently we would replace them with smaller, community-based facilities that would provide more humane treatment. Where are they? There are pathetically few.

In 2004, California voters passed Proposition 63, mandating a 1 percent tax on millionaires, to address this problem. Instead, billions collected for the so-called Mental Health Services Act were spent without oversight, diverted to initiatives “masquerading as mental illness programs,” even given to organizations working to prevent the seriously ill from receiving treatment, according to a 2013 audit by Mental Illness Policy Org., a New York think tank. A report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that between 2009 and 2012, states cut a total of $4.35 billion from their mental health budgets. California was among six states that made the deepest cuts.

So even responsible families that don’t turn to an attorney to solve their problems struggle because of our society’s inadequate mental health infrastructure.

We have the mentally ill who often drift away from their families, winding up homeless, or in shelters and jails. Always, there is the potential of endangering the lives of everyday citizens. I needn’t remind you that mass shootings at Newtown, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and, most recently, Santa Barbara, were all perpetrated by people suffering from mental illness.

This is a horrific problem that requires a far higher priority lest we be sentenced to an eternity of these stories, most of them with tragic outcomes.

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