"Failed to Death"

It is with a heavy heart and a great deal of anger and frustration that I share with you the tragic end to my neighbor's struggle with mental illness.

Recently the Denver Post, a Colorado newspaper, ran a story series titled, "Failed to Death." While this series was about children who fell through the system cracks and which ended with loss of life, I think that they could, and should, run a companion piece detailing the same problems in regard to the mentally ill.

On November 25, I wrote about my frustrations of trying to get help for one of the gentlemen in our neighborhood in a post titled, Helping Those with "Beautiful Minds". A man not much older than myself, lost his job, was unable to find work, lost his insurance and went off of his medication. Shortly after that he started to hallucinate fairly significantly. His delusions were paranoid in nature and resulted in his inability to function in regards to basic day-to-day life. His water was eventually shut off and he began to struggle financially. His property deteriorated and he visibly lost weight. He was struggling and all those around could see it. The problem was, they were powerless to do anything about it.

The neighborhood rallied around him, not in a malicious way, but in an effort to help him. In point of fact, the actions I witnessed were so compassionate, so caring and so willing to help that I found unexpected pride and appreciation in my community. He verbally assaulted some of the people on our street, and yet they were still capable and willing to accept that it was his illness and not him that was shouting those things at them. I saw neighbors get involved, make phone calls, offer to help pay his bills, try and contact family, request well-checks and keep a general eye on his well-being. I myself provided water for him when his was shut off and while I never felt immediately threatened, I was keenly aware that his paranoid hallucinations represented a very real and present danger to myself and my family in their unpredictability. With that in mind I told my kids that while I expected them to be kind in all dealings with the neighbor in question, they were not allowed to play in the front yard anymore, answer the door, or speak with him unless an adult was present. After all, I had to be realistic about our safety.

At the end of my post lamenting the care of the mentally ill in America I predicted a tragic end to my neighbor's story. Unfortunately, I was right. He can now get the help he needs because he finally attempted to commit "grievous harm to himself or others." He could get the help now, if only he had lived. My neighbor passed away as a result of his illness. The system failed him in every way that I predicted. It makes me angry to think that we had a ticking time bomb on our street. We all knew it, the police knew it, his psychiatrist knew it, and his family knew it. And yet, thanks to the woefully inadequate laws in this country to help those who need it and protect citizens from mentally ill patients in free fall, we can add one more tragedy to the Preventable Tragedies Database.

I am sad, but relieved. It feels like divine intervention that things went down the way they did. I feel sick when it occurs to me that we live abreast of a school and when the police came to search his house I watched them carry out enough weaponry and ammunition to take down Fort Knox. The wrong amount of noise from the school, a snatched conversation, anything could have set him off and children would have been at risk. And when I think of what might have happened it makes me furious.

I do not blame my neighbor. In the end it does not taint my memory of his kindness towards me and my children. It makes me mad at the system. It makes me mad that things like the mental health clause is clearly no barrier to gun ownership. It makes me mad that we cannot help until someone dies and then, so often, at that point help is rendered useless.

The moment clearly calls for a giant "I told you so," but it is one I do not relish in any way. The whole thing is infuriating and heartbreaking. The system failed my neighbor, it failed him to death.