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Mental health as important as gun control

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The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has drawn attention to the need for greater access to mental health care. - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP file photo
  • The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has drawn attention to the need for greater access to mental health care.

John is a 31-year-old American, born and raised in California. He is currently on probation, attempting to turn his life around.

Blue-eyed and athletic, with a positive disposition, John came into a world where every door was already open. He never took that for granted, though, and carved himself a pleasant niche. Ever curious about the way things work, he got a college degree and became a carpenter. He tinkers, builds, surfs, skates, runs, explores, makes sausage and obsesses over coffee.

He also lives with demons.

When he releases himself to mania, John winds up in the back seat of police cars, the hallways of hospitals, or roaming the towns of the western United States. This has gone on for seven years, every spring, like clockwork.

John has Type I bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He was born with a mind he cannot control without both internal and external help. But he views such help as a shackle, and he rejects the notion that he must always be medicated.

He can be socially awkward. He has difficultly sustaining relationships. He is so quiet, sometimes it’s like he’s not there. Other times, he isolates himself for weeks. And he becomes vacant when he stops taking his meds.

Even after seeing John transform, it’s difficult to imagine him becoming violent. But he has fought with many police officers, and once he nearly attacked a close friend with a hammer just before cops stopped him with a bolt of electricity.

He has the legal right to not control his illness. Lasting treatment is largely the choice of the individual. The problem is, John is not qualified to make that decision.

John’s friends supported him for the first few years of his crisis. We learned a lot about the world of mental illness and treatment — terms like “5150,” “bipolar,” “lithium” and “chemical imbalance.” But the word “no” was always front and center, since there was not much anyone could do for John unless he approved. Communicating that to him was impossible.

Two years ago, John’s father, an attorney, tried to gain conservatorship over his son to force him into treatment. That proved to be a dead end. And despite John’s many rough encounters with law enforcement, it was never enough to force him into treatment.

But about a year ago, when he bit an officer while being arrested, there was an opening. His father knew that a conviction would force John into a sort of community court system for people with mental disabilities.

Under the terms of his probation, John must now live in a special home and lead a regimented life. So far, he is moving forward. A father had to help convict his own son of assaulting a police officer to get John to this point.

The last time John had an episode that I witnessed, he had lost his job and was being kicked out of his home. He came to stay with me. Over about eight days, he spiraled deeper into the mania. He became obsessed with his former employer — also one of his closest friends. John created a scenario in which the friend had systematically ruined his life. He would not listen to suggestions that it wasn’t true. He wanted revenge. He spoke lucidly of acts of violence he would carry out.  

John disappeared before committing to those thoughts, surfacing 500 miles away with nothing but pants and a shirt. He was arrested for disturbing the peace on a freeway off-ramp. He was released less than 72 hours later.

Last week’s horrible school massacre in Newtown, Conn., seems to be a watershed moment more likely to spur quick action than other similar tragedies. Most of the focus has been on firearms, yet much attention also has been paid to the possible mental health issues of shooter Adam Lanza. I view that as important progress.

Not everyone who suffers from a mental illness is destined to become a violent killer. Yet as mental health diagnoses have risen, access to services has only become more difficult. We are led to believe that it infringes on one’s freedom to be forcibly medicated, but the debate ends there. Why is there no other solution?

The mental health professionals I met along John’s journey were frustrated by the lack of resources they were given, and not one person was resigned to this — they wanted to do more. One of the greatest things about Americans is our capacity for compassion in times of crisis. Now is such a time. I’m not going to pretend to know the solution, but I’m certain it is not solely about gun control. We can improve our future once we change how we view people like Adam Lanza and my friend John. We can help them before they go down in history as monsters.

Max DeNike is a news editor for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at mdenike@sfexaminer.com