Mentally ill lives matter.

Korryn Gaines was shot and killed after a lengthy standoff with officers of the Baltimore County Police Department when she threatened to kill them and aimed a 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun in their direction with her 5 year old son beside her.  Her son was wounded by a shot fired by one of the officers.  This incident is another example of what can happen when a seriously mentally ill person gets his or her hands on a firearm.

I am confident that the Baltimore County Police Department will review the tragic death of Korryn Gaines in order to determine if there is anything that they could have done differently to avoid taking her life and injuring her son.  The chief of the department, James Johnson, has a well-deserved reputation for being an enlightened and effective leader.  I was impressed by the comments of County Councilman Julian Jones in the aftermath of the incident.  He acknowledged that the officers were following their training, but stated that the protocols for responding to such emergencies should be reviewed to determine if changes should be made.  That is always the correct approach in any tragedy of this type, especially when legitimate questions have been raised about the tactics used by the police.

I hope that the rest of the community takes a similar approach, because there are other lessons to be learned.  One of those lessons is the need for family and friends to be alert for indications that there may be more to a person’s commitment to particular set of beliefs than meets the eye, particularly when those beliefs include feelings of persecution and a preoccupation with violence.

Before I became a lawyer I was a psychiatric social worker trained at the University of Pittsburgh with internships at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and the Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.  I spent quite a bit of that part of my career evaluating soldiers sent by their commanders to the mental health clinic or emergency room of Kimbrough Army Hospital on Ft. Meade.  Many had overt symptoms of mental illness.  Others were sent because of “strange” things that they said or did that struck their commanders as abnormal even though they continued to function more or less adequately as soldiers; one psychiatrist with whom I worked referred to them as the “walking wounded.”  One of the thoughts in the backs of the minds of the commanders who referred them had to be that these individuals were entrusted with weapons and knew how to use them.  A fair number of such soldiers eventually described to me delusional thoughts and even hallucinations influencing their behavior.  Many things have changed since then but the walking wounded are still out there.

I do not know exactly what was wrong with Ms. Gaines, but in retrospect there were plenty of warning flags:  Her increasingly more bizarre conduct and hostile interactions with the police, her conviction that the police were out to harm her and her concrete preparations for the violent confrontation with police that she believed was inevitable.  And then of course there was the reported history of exposure to lead paint and its effects on her intellect and behavior.  There was no plan or conspiracy by the Baltimore County Police Department to kill Ms. Gaines, regardless of what was in her head; she was delusional if she truly believed that the Baltimore Police Department was out to kill her.  And, it is almost unheard of for a mother to put her child in that type of danger in the absence of delusions or hallucinations driving her behavior.

Ms. Gaines purchased her shotgun in 2015.  It is a weapon designed solely for killing people at relatively close range.  She posted a video to Instagram showing her loading the weapon.  “Gotta thank my dad for teaching me how to protect myself” and “thank myself … for teaching me who i need protection from,” she wrote.  At 23 years of age Ms. Gaines had prepared herself for a final deadly showdown with police.  The showdown came when police arrived at her apartment to serve a warrant on August 1st.

According to her social media posts Ms. Gaines was outspoken in her concerns about the death of black people at the hands of the police, and right-wing media were quick to blame the Black Lives Matter movement for inciting her behavior.  At the other end of the spectrum members of the Black Lives Movement pointed to the death of Ms. Gaines as another example of the disparate treatment of black people by the police.  Both miss the point.  The Black Lives Movement is not to blame, but I do believe that family and friends should be vigilant for signs that an unusually militant commitment to the movement by a loved one is based on a mental illness that could put both their loved one and the police in danger.  Whatever else people saw in Ms. Gaines, it is what they apparently did not see that killed her:  The fact that she was too ill to be in possession of a firearm.  She wasn’t a warrior or a martyr; she was mentally ill.

I also was struck by the news coverage of this incident.  As far as I can tell no reporter asked the family members of Ms. Gaines whether they knew if she had reached out for mental health help or if they had tried to get such help for her.  If mental health help was sought and it was either unavailable or of no use in preventing her death, then that is an important part of the story of this tragedy.

If a breakdown in our system for delivering mental health services contributed to the tragedy, it certainly would not be the first such failure.  The death of Ms. Gaines came one day after the 50th anniversary of the Texas Tower massacre.  On March 29, 1966 Charles Joseph Whitman went to see a psychiatrist at the University of Texas at Austin.  The psychiatrist’s notes reflected that Whitman was “oozing with hostility” and told him that he was “thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.”  On July 31, 1966, after first killing his wife and his mother Whitman took three rifles, three pistols and one shotgun to the observation deck of the tower on the university campus and killed 14 more people and wounded 32 others.

Social movements come and go, but mental illness is here to stay.  And, as long as everyone who wants a firearm can get one legally or illegally, we should try to figure out a way to reduce the number of firearms that get into the hands of those persons who present a danger to themselves or others, such as Ms. Gaines.

August 9, 2016

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