If you were this mentally ill man’s family, what would you have done differently?
Whenever a tragedy or violence occurs involving someone with mental illness, we wonder, why didn’t anyone see signs? Why didn’t they get him help?
In the case of 23-year-old Marcus D. Felton, of Appleton, Wis., the family did indeed see signs, and they did reach out for help. But unfortunately, that didn’t make a difference.
Consider the sequence of events.
Before Felton shot himself, before he was identified by police as a suspect in stealing cigarettes, before he was struck with a Taser, before he got into an altercation with police, and before he shot and wounded two police officers, his family reached out to authorities for help.
That’s what families are supposed to do when they see warning signs, after all.
In an ideal world, noticing red flags and reporting them to authorities would change outcomes. Treatment would heal. And no one would harm or kill others or themselves.
It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and judge, imagining what we would do differently.
But we don’t spend too much time thinking about it, because that wouldn’t — couldn’t — happen to us. Mental illness only happens to those who didn’t have good parents, are not good people, are stupid, make bad choices, are (fill in the blank).
And there is the rub. Because rationalization is only a game we play.
The truth is, mental illness, just like cancer, can happen to any one of us and there is nothing we can do to stop it from happening. It’s a harsh reality — one most of us would rather deny or ignore.
In Felton’s case, he apparently was receiving treatment for his mental illness, but it wasn’t working. Felton’s family reported that his new medication sent him into rages.
There is no question that Felton’s actions were not what you would expect from a rational, law-abiding citizen. And that’s not particularly surprising, because mental illness is an illness of the brain — that is, a problem with the organ that enables us to think.
One of the defining symptoms of Felton’s illness, schizophrenia, is disorganized thinking. In other words, one cannot think rationally.
Just as someone with diabetes cannot produce enough insulin, a person who is in psychosis cannot think or behave normally because their brain is not functioning as it does in healthy individuals.
It’s an important point — one that bears repeating.
When someone is mentally ill, their brain is not functioning normally. Therefore, they cannot tell right from wrong, or, for that matter, reality from dream.
When the police were initially called to the home, they reportedly told the family they couldn’t take Felton to jail or to the hospital unless he harmed himself or killed somebody. What that law says, in essence, is that nothing can be done until it’s too late.
In other words, we as a society think it is acceptable to ignore the problem unless a life is at stake.
As much as we would all like to turn away and wish that mental illness did not exist, it will not simply go away, especially not with healthcare and social systems that are not set up to address the problem.
What could have been done differently? If we had laws set up to help families of those with mental illness, things might have turned out differently. This man’s children might have grown up with a father.
Why not take him to the hospital, where doctors could have evaluated him and provided short-term treatment?
What if the police officer had been trained in how to safely interact with a person with mental illness? Laws have been passed to safely interact with individuals with other brain disorders, such as intellectual disability, so why not for mental illness?
While intellectual disability may cause a person to become agitated and aggressive when provoked, similarly, a person with schizophrenia will not respond the same way a person without a mental illness would respond.
Taking these steps may or may not have changed the outcome in this case. But it would have been a start.